Days Like These, Chapter Three

August 4th, 2011

Wherein the plot thickens and John Raven’s cynicism descends to new lows

The phone rang on. It was two minutes before I was capable of answering it. The voice was cordial enough. ‘Mr Raven?’

‘It is he.’

‘What?’

Obtuseness, especially at nine in the morning, is unwise.

‘Yes, this is John Raven.’

‘I wonder if I could come round. This is Detective Sergeant Garret over at Kentish Town. It’s about yesterday’s explosion.’

For no reason at all, apart from a mild dislike of having my territory invaded, coupled with the poster on my wall, a gift from Ferret, I decided to go to the cops. The poster depicted two building workers being assisted off a picket by a group of enthusiastic policemen.

‘That’s all right. I’ve got to be over that way this morning. I’ll come and see you.’

‘Fine. What time will you be over? We’re in Holmes Road.’

‘About eleven?’

‘Fine. See you then.’

He hung up. I was immediately annoyed with myself. Half the day would be wasted because of my mild paranoia and Ferret’s politics. I stumbled across the room.

It isn’t much of a place it is on the second floor of one of those late Victorian mansions that flourish in north Islington. It can be sued for optical illusion experiments. Stand Sylvester Stallone in one corner and he looks, with the aid of the sloping floor, like a fairground midget. It is cheap because I have been there for ten years. When Kathy lived there, it had elements of civilization. But since her departure for Italy, standards have declined.

I picked up the paper downstairs, made a cup of tea and a slice of toast. The marmalade had run out.

The Guardian had it on the front page, so God knows what the Sun had done with it. ‘MP’s HOME BOMBED’, it said.

‘Police are investigating the explosion which severely damaged the home of Tory M Raphael Hales in Camden Town, north London, early yesterday evening. No one was injured in the blast. The house was empty at the time. “We are treating this as a criminal act.” Said a police spokesman. “The anti-terrorist and bomb squads have been called in.”

‘Mr Hales has emerged recently as a critic of some aspects of his government’s policy. He has been attacked recently for his alleged links with far right organisations. His views on trade union reform and race are believed to have made him many enemies on the left.

‘”I don’t know who caused this explosion,” he said in a press statement last night, “but if some group of left wing thugs think they can silence me with bombs they are sadly mistaken. Truth is more powerful than their violence. I am going to continue to crusade against the Communist challenge to this government and the nation.”’

The rest of it was filler. I wasn’t happy. I looked out of the window: more mist. They had the floodlights on at the Arsenal. I had a cigarette and walked to the bus stop.

Garret wasn’t my idea of a cop. He sat behind his desk and twiddled with his beard. He would have looked more at home with Ferret’s mob in Stockport, I thought. Or perhaps that was where he went in his off-duty hours, or in some of his on-duty hours.

‘It’s quite straightforward, Mr Raven, a bit boring really.’ He laughed.

I laughed. I liked to be good company.

‘All we want is for you to go through what you saw, from the beginning. We’ll draw up a statement and you can sign.’

Ferret floated into view, finger pointed accusingly in my direction. I vaporised him.

‘I had just been to a shop in Camden Town and bought some material for a book I’m putting together. It was a pleasant afternoon and I decided to go for a walk.’

‘Fine, fine. Just tell me what happened.’ A stenographer behind me was taking notes. Garret listened until I had finished then offered me a Silk Cut. Clearly he was the nice KGB man. I took the cigarette.

‘Tell me more about the chappie you saw in front of you. Describe him.’

Ferret returned, and refused to be knocked off a second time. Oh Christ, I brooded, here comes this daft, harmless, bomb-planting squatter. Perhaps revolutionary justice will strangle him first…

I cleared my throat. ‘Difficult to say, really.’

Garret looked at me, through me. He was wondering why it was difficult to say, but he said nothing. I decided to tuck in behind Mrs Avis. ‘Dark brown hair, longish jeans…’

‘Anything else?’

‘Nothing that springs to mind.’

‘Bit of a limp?’

‘Yeah,’ my voice tailed off. ‘Yes, maybe he had a limp.’

‘What about his face?’

I was on safer ground here; after all, he had walked past me, I had caught sight of it, miserable looking guy…but his back was to me, most of the time.

‘I never saw his face.’

Garret leaned back in his chair, rested his feet on the desk, and looked every inch a man at peace with the world and his environment.

‘What did he do when the bomb went off?’

‘I don’t know what he did. I never saw him again.’

‘You mean he didn’t stop? You stopped didn’t you? Mrs Avis stopped, people came out of their houses, got out of their cars, and he didn’t stop?’ Garret was moving into the speedy interrogator routine while maintaining his air of relaxation. Maybe he could combine both at the same time, I thought. Ply me with fags with one hand, beat me with a rubber hose with the other.

I was always a terrible bridge player; it used to infuriate Kathy. I thought that if I won the bidding, that was it. Then I would sit there with a collection of dud cards on the table while she swore at me. Yet it shouldn’t have been difficult, it was merely a question of keeping Ferret out of my mind.

‘I wasn’t paying any attention to him. I was looking at the house, where the noise came from.’

‘You saw Mrs Avis?’

‘Yes.’

‘So why didn’t you see him?’

‘I didn’t say I saw her then. I saw her before, and of course I saw her afterwards. I noticed he wasn’t around.’ I decided it was time for a moving plea on the missing long –hair’s behalf, coupled with a few words of statesmanlike reassurance. ‘I think you’re labouring the point,’ I said. ‘After all, Mrs Avis was there, and I was there, and we didn’t blow the place up. So why should he have done? We were all just walking down the street.’

‘You stayed. He didn’t.’

More fool me, I thought. I shrugged. There didn’t seem much else to say. ‘Well you’ve got the Bomb Squad on it.’ I laughed. Christ knows why.

He smiled. ‘Yes. Well its inevitable isn’t it? They like to keep their hands in, them and the Anti-Terrorist lot.’ He swung his feet off the table and leaned forward confidentially.’ To tell the truth, Mr Raven, I’m just handling the routine part of the operation at this end, shoving bumf to and fro.’

‘I never realised Hale lived there.’ I’m innocent you understand? Nothing to do with me, just off to see the ducks.

‘No.’

‘It said in the paper that he had a lot of enemies.’

It was his turn to shrug. ‘So have a lot of people. If you shoot your mouth off like Hales, then you attract attention.’

‘You don’t like Hales?’

It was an unwise question. He was trying to inch me out of my shell, and I wasn’t sure that I had one. ‘I don’t have any views about Hales. Mr Raven,’ he said slowly. ‘Do you?’

‘No.’

‘I’m a police officer. I don’t care if it is Mr Hales who is bombed or Rudolph the Red Nose Reindeer. I would sooner that no one was bombed.

‘You are sure that it was a bombing?’

‘You can’t be sure of anything in this life, can you?’ He smiled again. It was a pretty shallow little effort, but mine had been unimpressive. ‘All I can say is that if anyone did it, it’s our duty to make sure that whoever that was gets done.’

‘Yeah, right,’ I muttered feebly.

The stenographer stirred. She was clearly not interested in our philosophical views on public life. ‘Is that all right Molly?’ he asked her. It was. The statement was placed in front of me. It was all the innocuous stuff. Mystery man hardly got a mention. I signed. I was out of the station within two minutes. On the other side of the road a man was standing. Just in front of a little French-Arab restaurant I used to go to with Kathy. I went off it after she walked out. The morning had done nothing to renew my interest. The man walked over. He was wearing a black leather jacket, and he looked like a fourth-division manager who had unexpectedly made it to the semi-final of the FA cup. ‘Sorry to bother you.’ He smiled brightly. ‘I’m from the Mail. Have you been in there about the bombing?’

It was getting worse. Another two were approaching. I hesitated and thrashed around. ‘Official Secrets Act,’ I muttered, and scuttled off down the road.

I retraced my steps of the day before, through the back streets, past the kebab houses, towards Chalk Farm. I decided to ring Winston Pix, a sporadic kind of picture agency which was an occasional source of income. I sat there and filed old prints, and an old Italian called Spizzichino shouted at me.

But I found myself back outside the junk shop. I heard a banging on the window. The girl mouthed at me through the glass. I remembered the folder. What had I done with it? It was at Ferret’s. I breathed easier and went in.

‘Thank God for that,’ she said. On Radio Three someone was recalling a big night out with Evelyn Waugh.

‘His first wife had just left him and he was bitterly unhappy and drunk,”’ boomed a fruity voice out of the radio.

‘Astin’s frantic,’ she said. ‘He never told me.’ She gestured to the back of the shop. ‘He never told me. He’s out there now; I shouldn’t have sold you that stuff. He was just sorting through it. He never told me.’

‘He never told me either. The stuff was out there and I bought it.’

She put her hands on her forehead. The spot had gone down. She smiled the insincere smile of someone about to borrow a quid.

‘More than your jobs worth,’ I said.

‘What?’

‘If you don’t get the pictures back.’

‘What? Oh yes. That’s right.’

She stood up. ‘Jesus. I wonder why I do this job. Still it’s peaceful, forty pounds a week and plenty of time for reading.’

‘Nothing like learning.’ I said. We hesitated. There was a crash from the back of the shop. A Victorian glass cage of flowers, with a very un-game like bird nestling amongst them, shuddered. Mr Astin came in.

Astin resembled a bogus RAF officer straight out of Terrence Rattigan, thirty years after expulsion from the old club for cheque bouncing, alive and ill in Thatcherland. His upper lip featured a dead or dormant wedge of fur that colour co-ordinated with his woolly cardigan but clashed with his crumpled black trousers. His shirt wasn’t too clean; it wasn’t too anything.

‘This is the gentleman, Mr Astin,’ she said.

He looked around, pausing to scrutinise the bird. It had stopped shaking. If it wasn’t worried, then I wasn’t worried.

‘What gentleman?’

‘The gentleman who bought the pictures.’

‘Bought the pictures? Stole the pictures!’

‘I didn’t steal them. I bought them yesterday afternoon from your assistant.’ I attempted a magisterial tone, aloof, above the squabbles of petty tradesmen.

‘They weren’t for sale. I don’t hand out my personal property to anyone who just happens to pass by.’

‘You weren’t here, the stuff was on display and I bought it, two pounds for the lot.’

‘Look here,’ he focused on me at last and looked as nasty as he could. In his day that was probably pretty nasty, and it was still impressive. ‘I want that pictures back and you are going to give them back. Right now. You can have your squalid little two pounds back and then you can get out and not come back.’

Kathy always said that I’m great at Custer’s Last Stand scenes. Arguing about the bill when I’ve already paid the money, or complaining about the sound track when the cinema is burning down. I decide that this was going to be different.

‘Since you failed to inform your assistant that you display your personal property in what I took to be your shop –‘ I waved my arm around the shredded wild life and Readers Digest selections – ‘it is hardly surprising that I should be tempted to buy it. When I came in here I had no idea that you were worried about the pictures. Had you asked me politely I would probably have given them back. Since you insist on ranting at me, you can sod off.’

The girl sat down and groaned silently. I had hopes that she would be impressed by my eloquence. She looked up and my hopes were dashed as she spoke. I thought I was beginning to locate her around Brooklyn. ‘Jesus, don’t be such an asshole.’

‘It was around that time that Vile Bodies was published,’ added the radio.

Astin blocked the door, apparently intent on preventing my departure. He was angry and nervous, but not about me. ‘Give me the pictures.’

‘I haven’t got the pictures. I don’t carry my possessions around in an ox-cart.’

A string quartet struck up. She turned the radio off. ‘If Mr Astin wants the pictures back,’ I told her, ‘he can write me a letter of apology, enclose a two pound postal order, cheques not accepted, and hope for the best. Send the letter to 80 Highbury Hill. The name is John Raven,’ I said loftily, pushing past him, and opened the door.

He said nothing, just stood and watched me leave. His anger had evaporated. He was tired and worried and even older than the seventy years I had originally awarded him.

I decided to give Chalk Farm a miss for a while. If it wasn’t bombs it was senior citizens. I was depressed. The week had hardly started, and I was broke and doing little apart from chat shows with the Force. I gave Spizzichino at Winston Pix the ring I had been promising myself. Winston did a good line in chocolate biscuits.

I stayed there all afternoon and most of the evening. He had been around, had Spizzichino. I spent about twenty minutes filing and five hours pumping him about his life. He had a shabby little office above a tailors’ in Covent Garden. Regularly every twenty minutes one of the two old tailors would enter, pad silently to the cupboard that passed as the lavatory and pad out again. At the door they inclined their heads, with identical movements. It must have been the years spent together over the cloth. I left at nine; it was raining. I hated the city at night, it was full of wasted midgets who had fallen to earth years before, in dark shades and pink fluorescent socks, and had failed to book a return trip. London grew steadily more unpleasant, more loathsome on wet evenings with the bus fare and half a pint’s worth of money in my pocket. A middle-class couple were walking towards the Talk of the Town, she in a long evening dress and he in a dinner jacket, tribal uniform for the big night out. The midgets didn’t like them too much. He was unhappy, probably a mile away from his gleaming Rover 3500. What a crummy place for a big night out, tat everywhere. I climbed on a nineteen bus.

The floodlights were still on at the Arsenal; perhaps they had lost the ball. They weren’t on at 80 Highbury Hill. I let myself in and climbed the stairs. My door was open, I flicked the light switch. The table and cooker were still in the same places but the rest of the flat had been redesigned. My desk was open, the so-called sofa was bleeding horsehair, and a chair – the chair – was toppled over. In the bathroom the shaving cupboard was off the wall and the contents deposited in the sink. I hadn’t bothered to make my bed that morning, a wise move since the interior decorators clearly preferred it without the mattress. Ferret’s victimised building workers were all screwed up in the corner. Someone who had failed to find the bog had used the carpet. That was sad. The carpet was the best thing in the room; Kathy had given it me to usher in a Habitat phase in my life. My books littered the floor, and there was little left of my small record collection to take to the desert island I wished, devoutly, that I was on.

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