Today’s post is going to be a wall of words.If you read it all, I shall reward you tomorrow with a set of Symi photos, as we do on a Saturday.
It’s the first draft, first chapter of a new Miss P novel I am working on. (Well, by the time this goes live I shall be on honeymoon so I won’t be allowed to work on it, but you know what I mean.) ‘Unforgivable’ will be a farce set in the mansion house of a rich composer of musicals and there will be guest appearances from characters from ‘Remotely’ and ‘Jason and the Sargonauts’ among others from my novels. Just to say, this is 1st draft, unedited or proofed, and I’d be interested to hear your comments. You can leave them via my Facebook page here.
Unforgivable – chapter one
“Unforgivable!” Might be the most aptly named musical since “Grab My Coat, Hilda, It’s Another Ballad.”
The London Stage Review
Miss P couldn’t remember the last time she had been so horrified. What she had just witnessed was likely to scar her for life, and that wouldn’t be a good look for someone who didn’t age. Images from the past few hours flashed before her eyes like the lights of the night train through a railway station.
Those poor people.
The distorted faces, the bodies twisted into impossible positions, the poor souls descending into Dante’s Inferno, the tragedy of the whole thing. She could still hear the screams, the wailing and the gasping, the moans and groans, the cries of agony. Against the stampede and the clunking of machinery were the women bent double under the burden of their lives. They staggered from side to side, begged for alms at the mercy of men who spat and bellowed their sins.
Miss P shuddered. She had never seen such a dreadful musical as that just suffered at the King’s Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.
She rested against a souvenir shop opposite the theatre, fanning herself with the programme for “Unforgivable!” The programme was the only decent thing to come out of the whole messy experience; at least she could use it to keep away the drizzle. Who on earth chose to write a musical about the early life of Jack the Ripper? Especially one that flashed back and forth between his depraved childhood, his even more depraved ripping years (a tap dance) and his adult career as a bed and breakfast proprietor in Worthing (derivative of the funeral scene from Evita). She held the programme under a streetlight to read the cover and remind herself who was responsible for the outrage.
Paul Anderson, that’s who.
He was solely to blame for the anguish which was the two and a half hours of “Unforgivable!”
‘At least the title was honest,’ Miss P said.
She would never forgive him, and nor would the other poor souls currently escaping the theatre like victims from the Titanic, clasping their pearls and throwing themselves at the mercy of black cabs as if they were the last lifeboat.
She tucked the programme neatly into her large handbag and hoisted it to her shoulder.
It had begun to rain. Her umbrella was in a sulk and refused to rise to the occasion, so she gave it one last chance, which it ignored, before dropping it into an overflowing Westminster Council litter bin, saying, ‘Straight to bed with no supper.’ She turned up the collar of her mackintosh and tightened the belt.
‘Come on, you can do it,’ she said, encouraging it, and pulling herself in at the waist. ‘Bravo.’
Straightening her wide-brimmed Marty Quant original so the hat sat just so, she set off down the glittering avenue towards Piccadilly Circus to see what horrors could be found. Every time she witnessed a tragedy she cheered herself up by witnessing another as soon as possible. It helped her remember that there was always someone worse off than the last person.
She paused for a moment outside the next theatre where the audience was fleeing from a revival of a nineteen-seventies farce. They had suffered much more than she had. Feeling heaps better, she continued in the hope of finding a hamburger with meat it in.
Reaching the covered arches on one side of the circus, she was about to muster the courage to cross the road when a sound came to her ears.
It was gentle sound, weaving through the heads of the thronging throng that seemed to have no idea where it was collectively going, except directly in her path. The airwaves were awash with noise; the splat of wet feet, the rustle of rainwear, tutting, mobile phones pinging, cars chugging past, accelerating for one second and then swooshing to a stop, the rattle of loose change dropped into an open guitar case and… The sound of youthful fingers picking expertly at a metal string, six-string that was perfectly tuned.
She stood as solidly as a rock in a fast-flowing stream while peripatetic pedestrians filtered around her, and appreciated the music. She knew where it was coming from and she knew that it meant something important, she felt the calling enter her.
On behalf of Miss P, it should be pointed out that she didn’t call her abilities a “Calling.” To her, that would have sounded far too divine. The only things she found divine were fine cigars and revenge. The “calling” was more of a suggestion than a vocation. She knew when she was needed, the back of her thumbs itched in a way that could not be scratched. The negative and positive charges emanated from her body at those two points and rejected each other in the space between. She imagined the Bearing Sea with Russia on one side glowering the short distance to America on the other. The turbulence in the middle must feel roughly the same as the clashing magnetic points in Miss P’s thumbs. She didn’t think about it for too long because if she did, her ankles started doing the same thing. Instead, she drifted towards the music maker to see who it was and why she was drawn to her.
To him, she corrected herself when she realised the long-haired, head-bent guitarist was a young man.
‘Now, what are you in need of?’ she silently asked the youth. ‘And what part do I play?’
She found another convenient resting post and, lighting a slim Panatela, leant one shoulder against the wall. She pulled down the front of her hat and peered from beneath with large, soft-focus eyes, the collar of her raincoat covering most of her face. The cigar smoke rose and coiled over the brim of her hat, twisting around the bowl before spiralling towards the musician.
She remembered the night Humphrey Bogart had seen her standing like this in Los Angeles in nineteen-forty-one. He said, years later, that the hat and coat were simple to copy, and the cigar became a cigarette very easily too, but the soft-focus eyes had taken hours of camerawork and subtle lighting to achieve. They came naturally to Miss P.
The music played on as she watched the lad. He was eighteen, she sensed, and although not quite homeless, he was very close to it. He had left home to follow his passion for music, seeking late-night jobs in bars where he might have a chance to play while paying his way through music lessons. He shared a room with half the cast of Madame Jojo’s and a curious man who voted for UKIP.
‘Oh dear,’ Miss P said, glancing towards the cigar smoke. It had returned from its sortie and was debriefing her. ‘Really? Then we must help the boy.’ She nodded sharply towards the guitarist and the smoke twisted in his direction.
As she waited and puffed some more to give the smoke a helping billow, a rumbling began in her stomach. It had nothing to do with the tightens of her belt, nor even to do with the car crash she had just witnessed on stage. It was a feeling she knew well and rather looked forward to. It meant that there was another piece to this puzzle and it was gradually approaching. She studied the faces of the passers-by, but none made her stomach actually turn over. She would know when she saw her target, and took a Rennie from her coat pocket, chewing it in readiness.
The music came to an end and, although no-one but Miss P clapped, a few did drop pennies into the boy’s guitar case. Miss P slid a little closer and counted his evening’s takings.
‘Worth far more than five pounds and two slot machine tokens,’ she muttered. ‘We shall have to see what we can do.’
The lad looked up at her, surprised by her applause, and Mis P nearly had a touch of the vapours. She had seen this face before. He was the romantic hero of many a Hollywood film, an ex-Disney Club teen star from the nineties, a young X-Man of the prequels. He was the smooth-skinned rascal who won the hearts of grandmothers watching Sunday night dramas on Chanel Four, the cutest of the boy band, the teen idol that women in their forties had a crush on. Except he was none of those things. He was a gifted wanderer with so much to give but no opportunity. He was alone, down on his luck and more likely to be the subject of a Ralph McTell song than the winner of ‘Remotely’ or other nation-storming reality television money-spinner.
‘Yes, we must help’ Miss P whispered, giving the boy an encouraging smile as she stopped clapping.
He smiled back, breaking her heart a little more, and sat cross-legged to play again.
Miss P’s stomach lurched and rolled uncomfortably. ‘Much like both acts of Mr Anderson’s latest work,’ she said.
The sounds were suddenly back, she couldn’t call them tunes because they clashed and grated in her head like pieces of broken-up oil tanker grinding against rocks.
‘That music!’ She wailed, referring to what she had recently been beaten about the head and face with at the theatre. ‘It didn’t rock, and it hardly rolled. It pitched a little, out of pitch. Like a drowning man who’s just given up the will to struggle on, it sank. Stank and sank.’ A passer-by looked at her in shock. ‘Not you, dear,’ she said. ‘”Unforgivable.”‘
The passer-by hurried on, muttering something about drunk old ladies.
‘I think there were several in the chorus,’ she called, waving. ‘At least if there weren’t they deserved to be.’
Listening again to the music, her stomach pitched and a strain of returning cigar smoke brought with it one of the most delightful passages she had heard come from anyone’s imagination. ‘Gorgeous,’ she said, closing her eyes and picturing the lad’s light blue eyes, wide with hope, shadowed by misfortune.
The boy was called Cole Ashley, or Ashley Cole, the smoke could not be sure because the young man’s head was so filled with clutterage it was hard to tell.
‘Clutterage?’ Miss P queried.
Apparently so. He had so many issues that there was barely room for his harmony, let alone his voice which, she realised, was now in use. He sang plaintively, a pure, but insecure voice that was capable of much more. She didn’t recognise the song, but it spoke of hopes and dreams and the usual sentiments, but with very little reference to love. At least that spared him having to think of other words that rhymed with it, apart from the over-used standards to do with doves, above and her favourite (but rarely used in a successful love song), shove.
He had a talent trapped by circumstance, and all he needed was a little shove — how appropriate — in the right direction.
Who he was and where he came from were matters that Miss P could investigate later. For now, she had her itching thumbs and her turning stomach, and they were enough to inform her that she was needed. There was still the question of who had upset her internal workings, usually so placid, and she scanned the arches for likely culprits.
It didn’t take her long to locate him. A tall, thin man stood against one of the pillars, his arms crossed, listening to the busker. He was slumped in his raincoat and in his forties, in that his shoulders were down, and his life was in freefall. He was also pushing fifty which wasn’t helping his current mood of suicidal contemplation. He had about him the look of a man who has lost not only his home, his job, his wife and other things that can be reluctantly replaced, but his ambition, his joie de vivre and his… His…
‘What is that word?’ Miss P asked, and the cigar smoke told her. ‘That’s it!’
Someone who had lost his creativity.
As well he might look all those things. Paul Anderson was crying, and he hadn’t even read tomorrow’s reviews.
‘Now I understand,’ Miss P said and dropped her handbag to her elbow. She opened it, rattled around at the bottom and found a cigar tin. Lifting it out and checking it was the right one, she stubbed out her burning Panatela on her tongue and chewed away the stub, as was her habit while fishing in her coat pocket for the other needed item. She touched it… ‘Ah ha!’ … and brought out a hip flask. She now found herself with both hands occupied and a heavy bag slung from one arm. She whistled to a policeman who was moving in on the busker, speaking into the radio at his shoulder. He was a portly traditionalist whose exuberance towards old-fashioned policing was hard to restrain. A bit like the roundness that his too-tight uniform was struggling with. He creaked over to Miss P.
‘Yes, Madam?’ he said, eying the guitar player with intent to move-along.
‘Oh, good.’ Miss P looked him up and down. ‘You have the perfect accent, and did I see you almost bend your knees there? Were you in a Carry On film?’
‘I’m, sorry, Madam?’
‘Be a dear and hold those would you?’ She thrust the cigar box and hip flask into his hands and, when free of them, took a lighter from her bag before hoisting it up her arm again.
‘It’s not really…’ the man began, but Miss P shushed him with a wink.
She opened the cigar tin and selected a very fine Camacho Slr Maduro from Honduras.
‘This is going to be a slow burner,’ she said, holding it under the policeman’s nose. ‘I mean the cigar, and the task ahead.’
She closed the lid and dropped the tin back in the bag. That done, she popped the cigar between her teeth in the way she had taught Groucho Marx to do and unscrewed the hip flask.
‘Most important,’ she said, offering a cheers to the policeman
He was too transfixed to respond. His radio was telling him he had a five-o-five at four points east and all assistance was needed, but he ignored that too.
Miss P took a swig of gin before peppering the cigar with it as if it were a hot dog.
‘Ooh, do you do veggie burgers?’ a woman from Islington asked at Miss P’s shoulder.
‘No dear, I’m not a temporary vending caravan.’
The woman moved on, disappointed, and Miss P popped the top back on the hip flask. Once it was safely in her pocket, she took her lighter and lit the cigar.
‘You best run along now,’ she said to the policeman, shooing him. ‘You don’t want to get caught up in this.’ An idea dropped in her head like the weight of a cuckoo clock just before it cuckoos. ‘Actually, before you get on with your response to your five-o-Hawaii, or whatever they want you for, could you take this with you?’
She blew a puff of treacly smoke in his face, and it clung to him for a moment (very much like the alien clings to its victims in “Alien”) and then drifted away.
‘That will take care of poor young Cole Ashley-stroke-Ashley Cole’s recorded misdemeanours.’
‘Right you are, Miss P.’ The policeman walked away knowing that the busker had a permit and wondering how on earth he knew the woman’s name and where he had met her before. He hadn’t, but it was a matter soon to be overtaken by the five-o-five in progress outside the King’s theatre. A SWAT team drove past at speed.
‘Now for the real deal,’ Miss P said and wandered closer to the guitarist.
She listened a while, repaying the pleasure his performance gave with the gift of the scent of tobacco leaves and syrup. The combination of those and the gin assured the young man that all would be well one day.
‘That day is a little way of,’ Miss P told him, and he replied with a nod as if he knew what she was saying. ‘So be patient, be willing to learn, and most of all, be yourself. You have less than ten years to wait and what you seek now, and what you will seek by then, will be more than worth waiting for, believe me.’
The first part of her job done, Miss P dropped one-hundred pounds into the guitar case, turned on her heels and clutched her stomach. The next part was not so pleasant, but at least it would be quick and bearable, unlike the second act of Paul Anderson’s second spectacular flop.
The man himself was heading her way, but his eyes were on young Ashley Cole (the correct order for his name). He didn’t see Miss P pucker her lips and puff a smoke ring at him as he passed within range. By the time he had walked through it and worked out that the smell wasn’t coming from him, he had arrived at the busker, and Miss P was stopping traffic in Regent’s Street.
Anderson looked down at the young man, using his nose like the sight on the end of a pistol. He saw an underfed scrag of a youth, with sallow features, a grubby face, ripped jeans and a floppy dark fringe that hung from a woollen cap. He looked like a failed nineteen-eighties- New Romantic, and his ringmaster’s coat with fancy-dress buttons didn’t help.
The lad stopped playing, nervous under Paul’s scrutiny.
‘Yeah?’ he said. ‘What d’you want?’
Whereas Paul Anderson spoke as he had been taught to at Harrow, clipped and precise … ‘Did you write that?’
Ashley’s voice… ‘I did, mate. What the fuck’s it gotta do with you?’ … was more honest.
‘It’s rather catchy,’
‘What d’you want?’
Paul pulled in a deep breath or air. This was going to be hard to explain. ‘I want you,’ he said.
‘Fuck off, I ain’t like that.’
‘That’s not what I meant,’ the great but fast-falling composer/lyricist/playwright replied. ‘That song you were just singing, I’d like to hear it again. Play it, Sam.’
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