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Reflections of a working writer and reader

 

 

Millennium – a city blues

Church bells.

Sam Turner’s eyes snapped open. This wasn’t Sunday morning in Rome. The last Sunday morning he’d spent in Rome had been three years earlier in ’97, and then he’d opened his eyes to a blue sky and a soft mattress. There’d been a warm presence beside him in the bed, fair hair spilled on the pillow. A smell of toasted almonds and coconut.

This was different. In place of the mattress was the wooden staircase to his office. His chin was on one of the steps, his shoulder on another, and the rest of him was quilted backwards as far as he could imagine. Something moved close to his right eye, and he saw it was his hand, flecked with crusted blood. He moved it again, voluntarily, until the pain in his shoulder and chest made him stop. The smell of his sweat and dirt from the treads filled his nostrils. He closed his eyes and concentrated on the bells. Great Peter, rich and sonorous, trying to express something unknowable from its lofty chamber in the heights of the York Minster bell tower.

A memory surfaced. Sam had been scheduled to talk to a combined meeting of the Rotary and Inner Wheel at the Viking Moat House. His subject, A Day In The Life Of A Private Eye. The original speaker, the one who had cancelled at the last minute, had been booked to speak on the millennium, a topical subject, as the event itself was due in 21 days. Sam was the replacement speaker. He’d been seeing flashes of yellow all that morning, hallucinating grey worms and shrunken skulls. He’d arrived at the venue a couple of hours early and had his first drink in one year, seven months, three weeks, five days, and six hours. During that time he’d listened to a small voice inside his head every day: the voice that told him he didn’t want a drink. But that particular day the voice was smaller than usual, and Sam wasn’t listening.

He looked at the tumbler of scotch on the bar for some time without touching it. One drink wasn’t gonna hurt. Might even get him through the lunch. He put the glass to his nose and took a whiff, stuck the tip of his tongue into the spirit, and finally put the glass back down on the bar. Pushed it away.

Then he drank it in one and asked the barman for a refill. ‘Call it a death wish if you like,’ Sam said with a grin. But the barman was too young to be friendly with someone who didn’t fit.

Sam sipped the second drink. Half way through the third he settled down to watch the people arriving for the lunch. The Chief Constable came in, together with his wife. He was a thin man with a long thin face, and she kept in step with him, remained close whenever he moved. They were reputedly a happy couple. Sam had another sip of his drink. Even among the middle classes faint traces of a monogamic instinct sometimes survives.

Sam’s bank manager came into the room, looked at Sam and walked out again. He was the kind of guy who’d lend you his umbrella when the sun was shining and want it back the minute it began to rain. He returned surrounded by a group of fat-cat lawyers and solicitors. The kind of people who could, if Sam played his cards right, keep him in business for the rest of his life. He turned and smiled at each of them. Raised his glass in a silent salute. But they were suddenly very busy seeing to their ladies.

The chairman arrived, a man old enough to have been a waiter at the Last Supper. His face was a sea of wrinkles. His eyes like tiny black shells. He spoke with a West Country accent, modified by a lifetime in the north. ‘My name is Roger Lame. We’re so glad you could come. Everyone is excited about it.’

Lame? As he was ushered through to the dining room Sam told himself it would be cheap to make a joke about the guy’s name.

At the top table he was introduced to the chairlady of the Inner Wheel, a woman who might have been pretty enough to hold up a game of darts around the time of the Second World War. The Lord Mayor was there, together with two prospective parliamentary candidates, and the society editors of the Yorkshire Post and Yorkshire Life. The room was seething with them, the top people of the town, sloshing back cocktails, making funny handshakes, and getting it on in the crude and inimitable way that the rich and far-too-comfortable have made their own. Like a group of people who had been individually kicked in the head by their ponies when they were children, and now believe everything they read in the papers.

Sam looked away, but the view was the same whichever way you came at it. They were spread out around him like a carpet of mould. When the waiter arrived, Lame asked Sam if he wanted a drink, and if the guy hadn’t been so old and frail Sam’d’ve given him a good old thump on the back. ‘Tell you what?’ he said. ‘Get me a scotch. On second thoughts, make it a double. No, two doubles.’ Lame looked back to check it wasn’t a joke, and Sam gave him the twinkle he’d stolen from Paul Newman twenty years earlier. Lame turned it all over in what he was pleased to call his mind, and worked it out from that one twinkle that there was no joke involved. To put the guy at ease, Sam added: ‘I don’t normally drink, just getting ready for the millennium.’ The waiter and chairman exchanged glances, and seven minutes later, Sam had two glasses in front of him, each of them containing the amber liquid.

He forced himself to eat the chicken and the roast potatoes, suspecting he would see little solid nourishment in the build-up to the great day. He decided to abandon his prepared speech, and after the meal he had the two glasses refilled in front of him. When the chairman had finished his introduction Sam got to his feet. He downed one of the glasses and began to speak. ‘Seen a comet in the sky last night. And it reminded me of you.’ He grinned at them, and three of them grinned back. Two lies in one breath, but why not butter them up a little? Tell them anything. ‘It’s been a horrific century hasn’t it? The conflicts of our time, too numerous to mention in an hour: I’m not even gonna try. Big wars, little wars; massacres, systematic and random. And that’s before we begin to think about the environment. I wanted to mention these things. I know I’m here to talk about private detectives, but this millennium thing is steaming up behind us real fast now, and I wanna get it in perspective. Seems to me we have at least as much to regret as we have to celebrate.’

Sam put the remaining glass to his lips and sent the scotch on its way. He held the empty glass at a slight angle and looked sideways at the chairman. No help there, the guy was all buttoned up in an impenetrable little coat of complacency. Sam turned to the waiter who was standing at the back of the room, and drew him forward with his eyes. ‘Same again,’ he said. ‘And keep them coming.’

He fixed his eyes on a lady JP who was unfortunately endowed with the kind of mamilla that a seasoned Friesian heifer would give her eye teeth for. He gave the remainder of his speech to her. Something about marriage, Alcoholics Anonymous, and Renaissance man.

He brought his bloody hand back into focus in the gloom of the stairwell. He remembered when he was small and he had to look after his cousin. Lucyboots didn’t always remember to have a wee when she needed one, and it was Sam’s job to remind her. He learned to pick up on the signs. She would start off fidgeting, moving her legs around, jumping up and down on the spot. From time to time she’d stop and push both hands down between her legs.

If he missed that stage, or didn’t actually stand over her and make her do it, she’d go into stage two, which was where she’d cross her legs and make sucking sounds with her lips. That was what you might call stage critical.

The young Sam wasn’t old enough to do the job. Lucyboots wet herself more times than he was able to stop her, and he was always in trouble for it because he should have reminded her in time. One day he’d washed her knickers in the pond and dried them in the sun. But he was still in trouble because the grown-ups could smell what had happened.

Another whiskey hit the spot. There was a bishop at the table to Sam’s left, a man who’d seen the light, a ticket-tout outside the gates of heaven. A heap of chicken bones in front of him. The clergyman whispered something to a woman sitting next to him who looked as though her soul had got the better of her.

The air was damp with well-bred distress.

When the world was young and everyone in it merely children Sam Turner had been in a crowded meeting rooms somewhere near Nelson’s Column with Alfie Bass and Phil Ochs and Vanessa Redgrave. All the chairs were taken, and people were standing at the back of the room. Phil Ochs had thrown a wobbly. Oh, sure, he was against the Vietnam War, but he didn’t think communism was the answer. He sang a beautiful and passionate rock’n’roll version of ‘Flower Lady’ which reminded some of the people in the room that they were human. Ochs didn’t hang around to see the effect he’d created. He had a date with destiny, and not a lot of time on his hands. Later Vanessa and Alfie and Sam went to a Chinese restaurant and ate crispy duck and noodles. They drank scented tea, steaming hot. Vanessa and Sam, and Alfie, they thought they were gonna stop the Vietnam war. But they miscalculated. It would take an enormous American body count, and a new generation of economists before the warriors put their guns away.

Phil Ochs and Alfie were both dead now.

The bells were still ringing when Sam got up on his elbow. Both of his legs were numb, but he flexed his toes, then his ankles, and slowly the blood began pumping life back into his body.

He’d gone to Hull after the Rotary meeting. There’d been no questions after his speech, and he didn’t hang around in the bar. It wasn’t possible to drink in York, there were too many people to stop him. But he wasn’t known in Hull.

A three week drunk.

The old man in the tank hadn’t been able to understand the difference between Donna and Dora. Two women Sam had loved and lost. One to a hit-and-run driver, and the other to cancer. ‘Donna, Dora,’ the old man’d said. ‘Dorna Nobis.’ And they’d sung it together. Dor-na, No-bis, pacem, pacem, Do-o-rna Nobis pa-a-acem, Do-o-o-orna-a No-o-bis pacem. . .

The bells were not going to stop ringing. Sam got to his knees and discovered the woman’s leg a little higher up the stairs. Two legs, connected to a body that was cold and had no pulse. He shivered. He couldn’t make out her face in the gloom, but he knew it was no one he’d ever met. It felt like a set-up, as if someone really didn’t like Sam Turner. He got to his feet, swayed on the step, then found his balance. Things to sort out here. Time to go to work. He wouldn’t have a drink today. Might never drink again.

The church bells were pealing out all over York – all over the world – but the sun hadn’t come up. It was still dark. Sam Turner and a corpse and the morning of a new millennium. Felt like days of old. Familiar ring to it.

An old enemy setting him up? The police? Something unthought of? Or was it just God again?