‘It’s not working,’ Geordie said. ‘You were right, what you said about Janet and Ralph and me and Echo all living in the same house. It doesn’t work.’
Sam sighed. ‘What’re you doing about it?’
‘Dunno. I just know it’s not working. That’s the stage I’ve come to. The first stage. Now I know that, I’ll go on to stage two, which’ll be to find some way of telling Ralph that he’s got to go.’
‘So what’s the problem?’
‘Venus’s had kittens for a start. Five of ‘em.’
‘Don’t tell me about the cats, Geordie. Stick to the main players.’
‘They’re all blind, Sam. I forgot about that. Kittens, when they’re first born, they’re all blind, like Angeles.’
Sam sighed. ‘Ralph and Janet and you, and Ralph has to go? Gimme the details.’
‘He took the truck back two days late and the guy told him to get lost, so he’s unemployed. But Janet thinks he’s a sleaze is the main thing. She says he watches her when she’s feeding Echo, like ogling her. She wants to be natural and relaxed when she’s feeding, but because Ralph’s trying to cop a look, she gets tense, and if that carries on the milk’ll dry up and all that.’
‘Serious, then,’ Sam said. ‘Can’t you tell Ralph to clean up his act?’
‘I’ve tried that,’ said Geordie, ‘but he reckons he’s just interested in the baby. No sex in it as far as he’s concerned.’
‘And you believe him?’
Geordie shook his head. ‘I believe Janet, Sam. But Ralph’s my brother. We’ve been separated most of our lives. I’ve dreamt about meeting up with him. We’ve got a lot to catch up on. I don’t want him to disappear again. Get on a ship and sail away.’
‘Is that likely?’
‘What does that mean?’
‘It means I don’t know what’ll happen. He could be here forever, or he could disappear again. I doubt he’ll go away, but that’s all I can say about it. I doubt it. The only reality is doubt. Who said that? That the only thing you need never doubt is doubt itself. You can worry about God and your family, your friends, whether the world’s round, if you’re gonna get cancer and die before you’re thirty. All those things are up for grabs, but doubt is a constant; you need never doubt it. Who was it? Who said it?’
‘Must’ve been a philosopher,’ said Sam. ‘Descartes? Sound anything like him?’
‘Day cart? Leave it out, Sam. I’m sleeping badly at the moment, and I know I’m sleeping badly because when I’m sleeping I still have the feeling that I’m asleep. But when somebody’s really asleep, they don’t feel like they’re asleep. They only know that they’ve been asleep when they wake up.’
‘Is that a fact?’ asked Sam, trying to keep the weariness out of his tone. ‘Geordie, did I ever tell you: you’re one of the few people I know who is a true fugitive from the law of averages?’
‘That’s because I grapple with life,’ Geordie said without a hint of irony. ‘Most people accept what happens, but I think about things. I can’t help it.’
‘And these are the things that have been occupying you today. Doubt and the nature of sleep?’
‘Yeah. And Echo as well. I’m always thinking about her, because she’s in front of me all the time. Every time I look at her something’s changed. It’s teething at the moment. You can feel her teeth coming, just under the gums. And it gives her gyp sometimes, specially at night. Janet and me’ve been wondering if we should slip her a tot of vodka. Know what I mean? Mix it with honey. Knock her out till the morning. What d’you think?’
‘Jesus, Geordie, I’m an alcoholic. Ask at a chemist shop or a herbalist, they must have something that’ll help. You don’t give hard liquor to babies. That’s probably what happened to me.’
Geordie shook his head. ‘Yeah. That’s not the way to go. Just a brown thought.’
Sam watched him for the span of a few seconds. Geordie looked back, then cast his eyes to the floor.
‘You don’t have to be so down about it,’ Sam said. ‘All these things are sent to try us.’
‘Is there something else?’
Geordie looked back at Sam’s face. ‘What is it when people are out of it?’ he said. ‘Y’know what I mean, they seem like normal, but when you start to dig you find they’re coming from somewhere nobody’s ever been before.’
‘You’ve lost me,’ Sam said.
‘No, I’ve heard you talk about it, you and Celia. It’s like they’re aliens.’
Sam laughed. ‘Alienated,’ he said. ‘The condition of western man. And woman.’
‘Yeah, alienated,’ echoed Geordie. ‘What does it mean?’
‘It’s when someone turns away from the world, from reality, because they can’t face it any more.’
‘So it’s nutty people?’
‘In a way, yeah. But the society we live in, the way we live drives us all nuts. You could say we’re all alienated, some more than others.’
‘Is it when somebody’s an onlooker, then, somebody who’s outside of life? Because there is that isn’t there; people who are onlookers and people who’re partakers?’
‘Yeah, but alienated people are in flight. We’re all onlookers and partakers at the same time. Especially you and me, in the business we do. I’m watching Angeles Falco’s back at the moment, but that doesn’t mean I’m running away from reality. I don’t exactly go searching it out, but it seems to be always somewhere close to hand.’
‘We’ve got this neighbour,’ Geordie said. ‘Seemed like a real nice lady. When she hears I work with you, and I’m a private eye, she asks Janet if she can talk to me. So last night, we’ve got Echo off to sleep and she comes over. Mrs Cuddon, she’s called. Janet goes to make some coffee and Mrs Cuddon tells me about her daughter, Felicity, who’s eleven years old.
‘”Felicity’s been having some trouble with the penguin,” she tells me.
‘And I’m thinking maybe they keep a penguin in the back yard, or they’ve got a relative who runs a zoo. I’m scrambling my brains there trying to work out how this fucking penguin comes into the equation. How Felicity comes across a penguin at all. Because I’ve seen her in the neighbourhood and sometimes she’s had a dog with her, or her school-friends. But I’ve never seen her with a penguin, not even a doll penguin. I’d’ve remembered that.
‘Anyway, I don’t jump straight in. I sit and listen, like you’re always saying I should listen more, suss the situation out, keep quiet and let the thing unfold.
‘She says, “I don’t know why a grown man like that wants to hassle an eleven year old girl. D’you think you could investigate? Get him to stop?”
‘I said, “I’ll do my best Mrs Cuddon. Somebody’s hassling your daughter, which’s a serious offence. Can you give me a description of the man?
‘And she gives this little laugh, you know what I mean? It doesn’t last long, but it’s high pitched and loud, startling kind of laugh. You hear a laugh like that and you do a double take because that kind of laugh doesn’t come from the right place. “It’s The Penguin,” she says. “Everybody knows what he looks like.”
Sam said, ‘She’s talking about Batman and Robin?’
‘Yeah. I have to explain to her that The Penguin lives in Gotham City, and this is York, and they’re like different places.’
‘And she accepted that?’
‘For a while she did, but she’s coming back again tonight. She wants to know what’s happened to the Dark Knight. My question is this: Is Mrs Cuddon alienated or is that something else? And what the hell am I gonna do about her, Sam? I’ve got enough worries of my own.’