The ghost of a Petula Clark song drifted into The Bag O’ Nails through a partly open window. A shard of sunlight sliced through the blinds, picking out specks of dust that floated in the air. An old electric kettle boiled in another room. A refrigerator hummed. A dishwasher chugged dully. A mangy black and white cat strolled across the newly polished bar before curling up on a wooden bar stool and going to sleep. Bertie Peaslee took another sip of warm beer and drowned in a haze of Proustian nostalgia.
A grubby-grey December morning had melted into an inky-black night. And then it all turned white. Ingrid Faith, tall blonde and unerringly magnificent, wore black sunglasses and black fur coat as she strode across a snow smothered Hyde Park, indifferent to the blizzard attacking her from all sides. She looked as if she owned the place, thought Peaslee, but then, she always did, wherever she went. Shivering, and slightly hung-over, he stumbled beside her, a gloved hand on his leather trilby, the other tugging at her elbow.
‘Ingrid,’ he yelled. ‘Slow down, sweetie. We need to talk about this. Jagger is getting too big for his boots and you know it. Jumped up little oik. ’
She stopped and gave Peaslee a withering smile. He wrapped his black overcoat tight.
‘Now, now, Bertie,’ she purred. ‘Now, now.’
‘Well, it’s true. I never thought I’d meet anyone less talented than Epstein’s ragged-trousered ruffians but …’
Ingrid put a finger to his lips and nodded over his shoulder. He turned.
A chubby policeman ran up to them, slipping and sliding.
‘Miss Faith,’ he gasped. ‘Miss Faith.’
Peaslee shuddered and not with the cold. The policeman took off his tall helmet. Snowflakes covered his Brylcreem clogged black hair like old confetti.
‘Could I have your autograph please, Miss Faith?’ he mumbled. ‘I’m a big fan of yours.’
‘Of course, darling!’ She beamed at him. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Edward Carr,’ he said. ‘My mates call me Ed Cars!’
He chuckled and Ingrid laughed loudly, clasping his arm.
‘I’m sure they do, darling. I’m sure they do.’
Ingrid scrawled something in his notebook, kissed it and then kissed him on the cheek. He flushed.
‘Th … thanks. I thought you magnificent in Carry On Croaking. Is it true you’re going to be in one of them Hammer films with that Christopher Lee?’
He licked his lips.
‘Oh, don’t believe everything you read in the papers, Eddie,’ said Ingrid. ‘Things aren’t always as they appear to be. ’
Ingrid took the policeman by the shoulders and turned him towards the park gates.
‘Ciao, dahling!’ she said, using her catchphrase from her latest hit film – a strained romantic comedy called ‘Latino Palaver.’
She waved and blew a kiss as the giddy policeman wandered off toward the park gates. Turned to Peaslee. Scowled.
‘Let’s get back to the hotel, darling. I need my medicine.’
Peaslee frowned. Another white night beckoned.
Peaslee’s reverie was shattered by Nathaniel Wingate’s echoing, cacophonous laughter.
‘Good one, eh?’ wheezed Wingate, whipping tears from his eyes.
‘Yes, very good,’ said Peaslee, with a raspy chuckle. ‘Very droll.’
Not that he’d been listening to a word that Wingate had said but, since Wingate always laughed uproariously at his own jokes, the resounding guffaw that had burst free from his flabby chops had presumably signalled the delivery of another laborious punch line. Wingate gulped his gin and tonic and tapped is massive red nose in that smug, annoying way he always did. He tapped his smartphone and began wheezing with laughter looking more than somewhat like Mr Punch.
Peaslee’s stomach began to make loud gurgling noises.
‘The liquid brunch not doing the trick?’ said Wingate.
‘Not really. Perhaps I should have stopped off for a Cornish pasty on the way, there’s a lovely little stall around the corner.’
Wingate lowered his half-moon glasses and squinted over at the Grandfather clock in the corner.
‘It’s almost midday,’ he said. ‘They’ll be serving the pub grub in a moment.’
Peaslee absently tapped his inside jacket pocket. He wasn’t sure he had enough for lunch in a West End pub and pension day was a week away. The heydays of the Rank Charm School were in the dim and distant past now.
‘Oh, I think I’ll stick with the booze,’ said Peaslee. ‘Lighter on the waistline, you know? Anyway, pub grub is yet another abomination of this modern age. It used to be that you could pop into the pub at lunch time for a swift half or a snifter if need be and the place was half empty. A sanctuary. Now, look. You can’t get served because the place is full of pasty faced, salad munching secretaries ordering coffee,’
‘Yes, I’ll give it a miss myself. I’m off the The Ivy with Adrian Gill later.’
Peaslee trapped the sigh inside himself and his stomach gurgled even louder.
Ingrid’s naked body – arms stretched wide, as if she had been crucified – spread across the four poster bed’s white silk sheets, her skin as white as snow exept for a slash of crimson lipstick.
Slumped in a leather armchair, Peaslee had at last stopped crying. Screaming. Only whimpers now. Rain splashed the window and outside the King’s Road’s street lamps seemed to twinkle like stars. He stood, crushing an empty syringe beneath his feet, and went over to the bedside table. A beat. He picked up the phone and dialled.
‘Hello,’ Ronnie. Is Reggie there? It’s Bertie Peaslee and I’m afraid I appear to be in a bit of a pickle.’
Peaslee hadn’t noticed the pub start to fill up. When he’d first wandered in, Wingate had been the only customer. Now there was a hairy busker nursing a half of lager, a white haired old woman with a wicker-basket talking to herself in between loud slurps of Guinness and a large group of noisy tourists hovering around near the bar. Italians by the look of them. Loud, brash and spending an age just to order coffees which they would only complain about and never finish.
Marek, the massive barman, stopped stocking the fridge with Kopparberg cider and unhurriedly wandered over to the loudest Italian, an overdressed matriarch wearing gaudy Armani sunglasses. Only a couple of years in London and already the Pole was jaded, intolerant. A typical Londoner, then.
The old grandfather clock had just struck thirteen and Peaslee carefully sipped his pint of London Pride – luckily there was enough beer left to last until the braying Latinos had finished faffing around. He hoped.
It was his own fault for drinking in a Covent Garden pub, of course. Should have known better, even on a Monday. But as Peaslee’s retirement had trundled on he’d often found himself wandering the streets of London in the early hours, eventually stopping off at the first pub he saw open. He’d been tempted to get a Tube train to Knightsbridge and pop in to The Tea Clipper, though it had lost a lot of its charm since Charlie Gray and his old cronies had … expired.
Wingate was messing around with his smartphone again. Chuckling to himself. Tapping the screen. This was another one of Wingate’s many annoying habits. Like Peaslee, he was in his early seventies but unlike Peaslee he felt the need to keep up with the latest trends, fads. He even had a Facebook account, whatever that was. Occasionally Wingate would flash his phone in front of Peaslee, chuckling away at some ‘post’ or other. Peaslee’s eyes were buggered though and he could rarely see what was on the screen. Still, he laughed.
He’d actually thought about purchasing a pair of specs lately, perhaps some half-moon ones like Wingate’s, to give him the Oxford don look- but he was too vain, he knew. Once a leading man, always a leading man.
The noisy tourists had collected together a few tables in the corner of the room and were seemingly yammering away about the over-priced clothes that they’d bought. Peaslee couldn’t help a twinge of resentment. He had always been a bit of a dandy, an appreciator of the finer things but a retired actor certainly couldn’t afford to buy the stuff that was on sale in west end shops these days, even if he’d wanted to. Thank god for charity shops. His late wife would spin in her grave if she saw him entering Oxfam. A comforting thought.
Wingate, of course, liked to dress years below his age – another annoying habit – and since he was still getting royalties for the cheesy pop songs he’d co-written in the sixties and seventies, he could afford it. One of the songs – ‘The Company Of Youth’- had even been used in the most recent Austin Powers film generating a tidy bit of income, Peaslee was sure.
Peaslee felt his joints creak as he stood up to go to the bar.
‘I shall need more lubricant, I think,’ he said. ‘To oil the joints.’
He caught the weary barman’s attention and yawned inwardly as he waited to collect his drink.
‘Life is brutal,’ said Marek, stone faced.
‘Oh, indeed,’ said Peaslee.
As he unsteadily sat back down, he noticed a woman step into the pub doorway. Tall, blonde and beautiful. Dressed in black. He turned pale and grasped his chest, dropping his pint glass which shattered on the pub’s wooden floor.
‘One too many old boy,’ said Wingate, with a wink.
‘No, no …I …’
Peaslee looked down at the broken glass and then back at the pub doorway. The woman was gone.
The dark alley was illuminated by the light from a nearby church’s stained glass window. Ingrid’s body had been wrapped in tarpaulin and unceremoniously dumped into the back of a BMW. The two thugs had driven her away, presumably disposing of her body as part of the local motorway construction. A form of immortality, Peaslee supposed. He stood chain smoking until the night threatened to enfold him.
‘Ciao, darling!’ he whispered to the stars and the void between them.
Peaslee’s sigh came deep from inside him. The rented flat was like a Hieronymus Bosch painting. A hodgepodge and mish-mash of second-hand furniture. Every style and era had been paid lip service to with no thought of cohesion or style. He shuddered every time he looked around the room. He’d only been staying there for a couple of months and he was always desperate to get out of the place.
He was also becoming impatient waiting for the taxi and carefully edged through the obstacle course of junk and out onto the balcony, to see if she could spot it.
On the opposite balcony, a tall man with long black hair took breadcrumbs from a plastic bag and threw them in the air. Black birds darted down from telephone lines where they had been lined up like notes on sheet music. The birds flew towards the tall man, landing on his balcony and sometimes on him. His raucous, joyous laughter brought an unfamiliar smile to Peaslee’s face.
On the street below, he could see a branch of a small general dealers with a bright green logo above the door as well as a bicycle factory that had been converted into a nightclub, and a stretch of trendy bars, including one with a large black tarantula perched above its dark oak doors – The Spider Bar.
The street bustled with young people wearing strange clothes and even stranger hairstyles. A tall blond in a black fur hat and coat walked up to The Spider Bar and pressed a door bell. The door opened, emitting a screech of escaping metal music. She slipped inside. A sense of longing enveloped Peaslee. And then guilt.
The taxi really was late and Peaslee took that as a sign to have another gin and tonic while he waited. The television was showing another bloody cookery programme. The fat lipped boy with the counterfeit cockney accent again. Peaslee wasn’t sure when it was that domestic drudgery like cooking and gardening had become elevated to the level of the works of Beethoven and Chaucer but it was another sign of what was wrong with the modern world. The pursuit of excellence had been replaced by the aspiration toward mediocrity.
A car horn sounded outside and Peaslee downed his drink. Once upon a time taxi drivers came to your door to tell you that they were there. Once upon a time.
The trip to the church passed in a fugue of bittersweet memories and Peaslee was both relived and delighted to arrive at his destination.
‘We’re here, pal,’ said the square-headed taxi driver, pulling up at the cemetery gates.
Peaslee shuffled out of the taxi and fished in his pocket for a handful of change. He counted out every coin, leaving a 50p tip before stepping out into a gust of wind that almost blew him over. The taxi driver laughed loudly and drove off.
The small church was draughty and had clearly seen better days. As had most of the people that were walking through its doors. Has-been actors, singers, game-show hosts and minor television stars cluttered the seats. Even in death, Peaslee concluded, Wingate was an irritating man. The weather was rotten, the funeral was a farce and not one of the Whitehall ones Peaslee used to be so good in. either. It was all crocodile tears. Wingate had been a decidedly unpopular man for all of his pampered life.
Peaslee sat uncomfortably as a suntanned Welsh crooner with leather skin performed a heartfelt version ‘Last September,’ one of Wingate’s biggest hits and one of the songs that kick started the Welshman’s career. But, apart from the singer, real celebrities were thin on the ground. There were even less members of Wingate’s family in attendance. A batty older sister and one of his ex-wives- and her Moroccan toy boy – who was clearly there to gloat.
He wondered if any of Howard Phillips’ family had turned up. Phillips had been Wingate’s writing partner for many years, some said the more talented of the two. One windswept winter evening Phillips, always a troubled soul and thrown his body off a cliff somewhere in the north of England. Fortuitous for Wingate, of course.
They left the church and walked over to small cemetery outside. Peaslee noticed a tall and familiar looking blonde. She wore black sunglasses and a long black fur coat and stood beneath a weeping willow tree, sheltering from the storm, smoking a cigarette. Peaslee’s soul ached for something just out of reach.
Reverend Abbott was one of Wingate’s old university drinking cronies. Until recently he had been in exile in the frozen wastelands of the north of England. With a dramatic flourish worth of Liberace, he began his graveside eulogy, his long hair flowing in the wind
‘There comes a time in every young man’s life,’ he said, his long arms stretched wide, ‘when he knows that he will never be The Fonz. Shortly after that realisation it becomes clear that he won’t even be Richie Cunningham. And so, then, he has to make a choice. Will he be Ralph Malph or Potsie Weber? But there are some men…’
Peaslee groaned. He really had no idea what the fool was babbling on about. He noticed the blonde step from beneath the tree, put up a black umbrella and walk off toward the cemetery’s wrought iron gates. He wished he was going with her. Wished for so many things. He sighed as he painted his fake look of sympathy back on, felt his rheumatism bite and thought about all the free booze at the wake.
An autumn storm ripped the sky open and Peaslee was glad to be indoors. He was down to his last bottle of gin and had a couple of days to go before pension day so he drank slowly and started to nod off when the doorbell rang. It was almost midnight and the television was showing the American programme about the serial killer.
He sleepily went to the door of his flat, peered through the spyhole and saw a tall blonde dressed in black carrying a doctor’s bag. His heart almost burst free of his ribcage and he froze for a moment until a banging on the door broke him out of his trance. He clumsily opened the door.
‘I’m friggin cream crackered,’ said Brandy Alexander, in a husky, ragged Liverpool accent. ‘Have you got a can of beer? I’ve got a throat like a nun’s knickers.’
She put the doctor’s bag onto a lime green sofa that was still in its plastic covering and pulled off her blonde wig, throwing it onto the sofa. She scratched her bald, tattooed head.
Peaslee went into the kitchen and took his last can of Carling from his smelly refrigerator. He went back to the living room and handed Brandy the beer and a chipped Justin Bieber mug. Brandy took the can from him, opened it and gulped down the beer.
‘Very … lived in,’ said Brandy, looking around the flat and clearly not impressed.
Brandy crushed the beer can and threw it into a waste paper bin that was overflowing with Lotto tickets.
‘Not had much luck there, then, Mr P?’
‘Not a lot …’
‘Let’s get down to business then, eh?’
‘Indeed,’ said Peaslee.
He took out his wallet. Picked out his last few notes and handed them to Brandy.
‘Shall we get at it then,’ said Brandy.
Peaslee nodded and rose painfully as they headed into the bedroom. Brandy followed behind him carrying the doctor’s bag.
‘Time for you to take your medicine Mr P,’ said Brandy.
She opened the doctor’s bag as Peaslee unsteadily took down his trousers and sat on the edge of the bed. Brandy filled the syringe and knelt between Peaslee’s legs.
‘Ciao dahling!’ muttered Peaslee as he looked through the smudged bedroom window at the twinkling stars and streetlamps outside.