Music By The Angels
Monday rolls into darkness and Tuesday dawns. Billy and Bex enjoy the smallness of domesticity, breaking the back of a confusing, sometimes threatening world by carving life up into manageable chunks. The bonds between them have remained strong in spite of Billy's frequent and sometimes prolonged absences. Their separation is legal. It is understood.
Between household chores, unpacking the shopping, brewing tea and the constant cycle of preparing food and stacking the dishwasher, they discuss the future. For Billy these are poignant moments. He is on the downward slope, aware that his time is growing short. He has no desire to do great things and the lure of bright lights is less compelling than once it was, although he cannot imagine life without a faint echo of music and sing-a-long girls. Fatherhood and divorce changed him. He grew up. He had to. He indulges his passions lightly now rather than burning himself at the stake, making a living doing something he loves. Billy has learned to be grateful.
Billy finds it strange that Bex is the one who, despite her common sense and grounding, seems, on occasion to be fearful. Sometimes he feels as though he ought to become maudlin, regretting the passing of time and the rising call of the pine box, but he has no fear of death. He has done things, many of them the wrong things, but he sees little point in regret. Bex, on the other hand, carries hope and fear in her hands, balancing them constantly. She has so much to do and she is in such a hurry.
They discuss school and university. Bex describes how her teachers fall into one of two categories; the ones who have come to resemble their books, hidebound, stiff of spine and congenitally dusty; and those who's pages get dog eared and torn as they try to remain part of the ever-changing youth culture that surrounds them. Most of the boys at her school are laughable, full of seventeen-year-old menace and spots, with legs and arms that they have not quite grown into. One or two are the real deal, though, and Billy will meet Tod in a few days.
Bex is not ready for the sex thing. She is quite matter of fact about the whole issue. She reels off reasons as if she is reading a list of faculties in a university prospectus; qualifications, boys rather than men, too young to really know her own mind, being frightened of the responsibility. It is Billy who is uncomfortable. He has a history, a list, a little black book chock-full of names from his illustrious past, but like his own parents, as he grows older he finds the subject increasingly difficult to talk about to people younger than himself, especially those he loves. He feels inadequate. He should be able to pass on the benefit of his experience, but it seems so sordid. The thought of Bex in the arms of some heathen called Tod begins to form in his head and he changes the subject.
Results. Bex wants to take a year out if she gets good grades, a year doing something somewhere. She has yet to make up her mind. A year on the tiles before taking up the books again. She wants to be a vet. Billy revels in her optimism, in the sheer range and exuberance of her take on possibilities. The world beckons and she is ready to follow. Billy tries to explain how careful she must be and how she must try to understand the questions before assuming that she has any answers. He still has nightmares about his little girl being led away by a Pied Piper.
How do you live with love, he wonders?
Bex wants to know about his past. Billy plays a game with her, one they have enjoyed for some years now. He selects records from his collection, talks her through the stories and the lives, and pins the melody to his own life. Bex has an aural map of her father's history.
They always end up with Vic. As the last bars of On the Street Where You Live fall away, Bex asks, "Can we go out tomorrow night? I want to see where you work".
Billy protests. "I wouldn't call Snuggle's the place where I work".
Bex insists and Billy bows to her youthful enthusiasm. "Okay, okay. Tomorrow night. Actually, it's not a bad idea. Open mic night. You'll see how terrible most people are, and just how talented your old man is."
"Modesty", says Bex, smiling up at her father. She is sitting on the floor, resting her head on his knee as he selects records and tracks, and cues them up on the turntable. "And it'll be nice to catch up with Maggie. Haven't seen her since last summer. How is she?"
Billy puts a hand on his daughter's head and strokes her hair gently. "Same old Maggie…"
The old Sillick place continues to rot. Each season brings with it cliff top weather. It almost never snows and frosts are rare, but it rains hard and often. When the wind blows the rain billows across the fields in great sweeping clouds. It seeps into the fabric of anything man made, finding the smallest cracks and gaps. For Doctor Jasari and his good-time girl the early part of the week passes without weather. They have an accommodation to make.
They also have drugs to make and the equipment in the lab is makeshift and basic. Although the process of making Bliss is fairly straightforward, being a blend of already formulated substances, to produce it in any quantity is labour intensive. Doctor Jasari is, in his watchful way, grateful for Helen’s company. He has shown the girl how to grind tabs of MDMA. He mixes and measures. She spoons the stuff into sachets. Together they finish the second batch and are well on the way to building up stock levels for the summer season.
The door keys remain firmly in the doctor's pocket. When he wants to sleep he locks the girl in one cell and he beds down in the other cell. When he wants company he asks and she gives. There is a freezer in the old farmhouse and a proper, full size bed. They have discussed their options. When they need to fill the fridge in the lab kitchen the doctor accompanies the girl to the farmhouse. He is usually friendly, but then he can afford that little luxury. He has a small Beretta tucked into the waistband of his jeans.
The girl has suggested they sleep together in the farmhouse. It would be more comfortable and they could spread out. The lab is depressing, but Doctor Jasari has yet to make a comment. He says, "We'll see". He is uneasy in the open air. Windows without shutters disturb his peace of mind. The girl finds it amusing and gruesome. He makes no bones about his contempt for Jock Cascarino and his boys. They are a means to an end.
Life is about choices, choices and consequences. Compared to the street she is relatively safe here so long as she plays the deadly game, so she concentrates. She does the work as directed. She pleases and teases. She makes drugs, makes basic meals, makes the doctor smile, and when the moment softens she makes him sweat. When she gets scratchy, when the itch is in her bones, he makes one of his potions and she feels alright. As a special treat, when the day and the man are done and the cell door is locked, he gives her good, clean smack. She spends the small wee hours over the hills and far away.
It helps to take her mind off things. She can deal with the situation most of the time. Freaky it may be, but she is in control. She is a woman and, fragile as she may seem, she has power over men, and she believes she can make that count. This man, her new lover and benefactor, is distinctly odd, too familiar with death, impassive in the presence of abuse, but he is still a man. What concerns her are the small things. In the farmhouse there is a room, a bedroom, bare and unfurnished. In the middle of the floor she has seen a pile of personal effects; a wallet, cheap beach jewellery, a hair scrunchie, a pair of red trainers and a small pink teddy bear with a heart shaped patch of red silk sewn on its chest. For the time being, she has decided, these are questions for another day.
The doctor sleeps soundly. He finishes each day in the arms of his good-time girl. He drinks red wine, the bottles coming from a diminishing store under the stairs in the farmhouse. He drinks just enough and then he tucks her up for the night and finishes the last bottle in his own cell. They drift through chemically enhanced conversations until their drug of choice carries them away.
Jock and the boys keep busy with the humdrum routines enjoyed by local businessmen everywhere. Property requires management. Contractors need chivvying along. Bills need paying. The sane world revolves around the treadmill of death and taxes. If you don't keep on top of the buggers they will rip you off and Jock keeps on top of them all. If a difficult situation arises he has the brothers McCoist sit on people. A technical term. The application of pressure works wonders during awkward negotiations.
Of the three farms under renovation, two are nearing completion, being on second fix, bathrooms and kitchens. The third will be ready by the autumn. Jock makes his legitimate money by buying up failing farms, selling off the land and converting house and barns into holiday homes. He only buys when there is potential to create seven or eight homes on a site.
His first successful development turned a clear million in profit, thanks to a gambling debt and the brothers McCoist, and the deal allowed Jock to buy two more farms. That was six years ago. There is enough cash in the bank to retire, but Jock has ambition. He also has a history. Like Billy's it is one of missed opportunities and cold shoulders. He should have been big in his home town. Instead he ran south with his tail between his legs. He wants to make one more killing before he starts taking golf lessons in the sun.
Doctor Albania is a sign, a mark of providential favour. He turned up in a pub, trying to buy whiskey with dollars. The British are sceptical about funny money. Euros are the devil's own currency. The good doctor clearly had an eye for the using type, however, picking Shaun Lloyd out of the crowd and trying to sell him a hundred Ecstasy tablets for twenty quid. Shaun pocketed the tabs, shared a drink with the man from out of town and phoned Ken McCoist.
It was meant to be a shakedown. Jock's boys control the distribution of certain substances in the North Devon Triangle; Barnstaple, Bideford and Torrington. Thankfully for Jock, Ken was on form that night and rather than deposit the foreign gentleman behind the recycling bins at Morrisons he took him to see his boss. Doctor Albania was christened. The albatross, Sillick Farm, suddenly had a purpose.
On a day-to-day basis the brothers McCoist run errands, supply wholesale drugs, ensure that local coppers turn a blind eye and deal with any unexpected situations. In their spare time they go to the gym and try to impress young women in that depressing way that forty-year-old alpha males have. They love the holiday season as it provides them with a chance to wear singlets and impress dumb blondes. They have no particular hobbies and Jock keeps them busy. As for ambitions, Ken wants to buy a pub on foreign soil when his boss retires, while Davie dreams of being able to return to his beloved Ibrox in a British Racing Green Jaguar XJ6. For all of his summer singlet bicep flexing, Davie's dreams are heavily populated with sheepskin coats and pints of Heavy.
Jock is out of the brothers' hair today, visiting Brownsham Top, one of his investments. He needs to explain something to the happy-go-lucky crew of local builders doing the renovation. The terms 'presently' and 'directly' commonly used by the usually invisible human beings that Jock calls the ‘turnip-heads’, terms that mean some time in the next three weeks, do not feature in Jock's dictionary. He wants the kitchen tiling finished and the final units fitted. He is releasing the details to the estate agents on Wednesday, just in time to catch the Easter parade of eager house hunters. Welcome to the glossy Good Life.
Jock's absence leaves the world of Snuggle's Cabaret Bar in a comfortable state of flux. Maggie Heard loves Snuggle's best on a Monday and Tuesday. The club is shut. The lights are out. She can sit in the office and book acts. She can plan menus. She has time to chase up corporate reservations. When the sun shines and dust motes spiral, when the smell of stale smoke mellows and becomes almost pleasant, that is when Maggie loves the place the most.
On Tuesday afternoons Maggie gets her hair done and spends an hour or two at a local beauty salon. Nails. A facial. A fake tan. It’s all show business. She insists on looking her best. The first full flush of youth may have passed, but she works hard to keep herself in trim. She is high maintenance and loves looking good. The bob cut has served her well, but her stylist is working on her layers. She'll wear her hair at shoulder length by the Spanish autumn.
It is tradition at the club that Wednesday night, the first show night of the week, is dedicated to local talent. Open mic is held every two weeks. On alternate Wednesdays Maggie tries to support local amateur dramatic and operatic societies by inviting them to sing songs from the shows. She also scours the local papers to see if there are any visiting celebrities, but they rarely attend and almost never perform. She nearly tracked Judi Dench down once, but her telephone message was never returned. Maggie would love to ask Joss Ackland over. He lives locally. Somehow, though, she has never plucked up the courage. Does he hoof? Maggie doesn’t know and thinks, on balance, that he is probably getting on a bit. In fact, she is not entirely sure that he is still in the land of the living.
She gets back to the club around four in the afternoon on a Tuesday and by rote she checks that the bar is stocked for the following day and gives the place the old once over, the finger on the bar test. Cleaners. The answer phone in the office is flashing. She checks the message.
"Hi, Maggie, it's Leona. Just thought I'd check you remember that I've got Saturday night off. My birthday. I'll see you Wednesday after college. Any problems give me a bell. Bye-eee."
Maggie has watched the budding romance between Leona and one of the regular boys behind the bar with a small degree of fascination. People watching is a hobby. It’s a shame that the boy has to work on Saturday. She thinks about giving him the night off too, but she has no cover. Maggie prefers working with people she knows, which is probably why Billy has such a regular slot.
Ted Line is an altogether different indulgence. That is care in the community. If she let him go he would drink himself to death. He probably will anyway, but at least he gets four nights a week when he has to slow down.
Billy and Bex arrive at Snuggles just after eight. The tables are mostly empty and a few punters mill around the bar, most of whom have stars in their eyes. The show kicks off in half an hour and regular attendees know this period as The Mumble. Conversation is limited and nervous. Hopeful comics rehearse jokes, careful not to say anything above a whisper in case one of the enemy nicks a punch line. Bathroom singers run through lyrics. At the far end of the bar a boy of sixteen takes anxious swigs from a bottle of orange juice. He has a large cardboard box of props by his feet. The magician.
The audience is made up of two distinct types; tourists and locals. When Billy and Bex turn up the few poor souls in the bar are tourists. Grockels. The atmosphere is as thin as consommé. The locals drift in around the time the show gets underway, having experienced the build up too many times to want to participate. They will be sampling the wares of the town's pubs, getting tanked, ready and primed for heckling. Maggie usually holds the first act until there are enough people in the place to make the heckling enjoyable. She sees no point in having an open mic night without audience abuse. The artistes have to learn the hard way.
Billy takes Bex to the end of the bar where Maggie usually sits by the red table lamp that she uses to remind Ted Line to hurry things along. Tonight the lamp will stay off. Performers get five minutes. If they go the distance they get a voucher for a free meal and drinks, and an encore later in the evening, but if the act bombs Ted Line rings a bell and they are hauled off stage with extreme prejudice. Billy moves one of the prototype comics along and he and Bex settle down on bar stools, ordering a couple of beers and a packet of smoky bacon for Bex.
The young lad behind the bar acknowledges Billy and takes an immediate interest in Bex. In between pouring pints and dealing with the steadily increasing trickle of voyeurs and masochists, he tries to get Bex into conversation. He has to tone his usual patter down a little, and his sincere belief that fathers should never accompany their teenage daughters in public is suitably reinforced. Bex thinks differently.
They get through two bottles in short order and Billy suggests that Bex has a Coke next. Strictly speaking she is under age. His suggestion carries the full weight of genuine parental concern, which hits Bex like a feather duster. Beers all round. The topic of conversation is marriage and Bex is explaining to her father why she will never accept that women need to do the meringue thing. Billy loves the primary colours that teenagers use when daubing the world with their opinions. He gives her current convictions a month at most.
The bar is filling. The atmosphere thickens. Just before half past the main door flies open and twenty young lads bowl into the room. The bartender looks totally dismayed, but Maggie appears in the nick of time to give him a hand. She makes a point of greeting a middle aged man in a blue fleece, shows him and the lads to a group of tables in front of the stage and suggests that they give her an order so that she can bring the drinks over. It is a pointless gesture. The lads are already crowding out the bar, yelling orders and intimidating some of the tourists. Maggie spots Billy and waves as she beats a hasty retreat and helps with the serving.
Shouted out from the crowd, "Four Buds, love!"
"Buds, right." Maggie picks the bottles out of the cooler cabinet, flips the tops on the bar's bottle opener and says, "Ten pounds, please". A note changes hands. "You going to give 'em hell tonight, lads?" she asks. The lads leave her in no doubt about their intentions. Maggie works her way down to Billy's end of the bar and serves one of the tourists. Service is gradually becoming less hectic, but she waits and watches, making sure the hired help can cope.
"It's like the bloody Coliseum". She has to shout at Billy and Bex. The noise level is rising by the second. Snatches of conversation and good humoured insults break through from all sides. Maggie fights to make herself heard. "Barnstaple Town. That bloke in the fleece is Terry, the manager. He wanted to get them out for the night. Bit of team bonding. Should improve the bar takings."
Another order comes across the bar. Maggie deals with it, telling Bex that she will be round for a proper chat in a second.
As Maggie walks round to the front of the bar, chatting with a couple of regulars on the way, Leona pokes her head out from the wings and points at her wrist, making the universal sign that says the evening is running late. Maggie doesn’t see her but Billy does and he manages to catch Maggie's attention. She turns towards the stage and gives Leona the thumbs up.
Leona's head disappears for a few seconds. Ted Line is primed. Then Leona skips down to the main floor and sits poised over the sliders of a small, portable mixing desk. The musical acts have to provide their own backing tracks, which she cues up for them on a compact disk player. She opens the main faders and Ted Line wanders out onto the stage to a cheer from the footballers, who are revelling in the opportunity this evening gives them to sit on the terraces and barrack. A Chumbawumba track booms out of the main stage speakers. "I get knocked down, but I get back up again." The evening's signature tune. First up is a regular, a would-be new wave politico comic.
He is greeted by jeers and cat calls. Maggie makes her way over to Billy and Bex now that the punters are firmly focussed on the stage. She gives Bex a huge hug. "Lovely to see you, darling. You're looking so well. How's the old man treating you?" She winks at Billy.
Bex grins. "Same as usual. No food in the house. Embarrassing. Everything you could possibly want in a Dad."
Billy sits back and takes it on the chin. Maggie goes with the flow. "Typical man. You take your time and find a good one when you're ready. So, how's the studying. Billy tells me it's crunch time. Doesn't seem five minutes since you were all buck teeth and braces."
Maggie and Bex hit the catch up button. Billy tries to watch the act on stage, but keeps one ear tuned in to the conversation just in case they start ganging up on him again.
The act. "What's wrong with this country?
Barnstaple Town's centre forward. "You are!" Cheers, jeers and laughter.
The comic has enough chutzpah to ignore the almost constant stream of interruptions. "I'll tell you what's wrong. Gulf War. Iraq. What was all that about dossiers."
Boos from the audience. Old news.
"Weapons of mass destruction. Weapons of mass destruction! Said so in the dossier but they never found them, did they! So, how did they know old Saddam had them? Tried to make it all official, didn't they. Nicked a student thesis and put it in a posh report, when all they needed to do was look at the bloody receipts!"
The guy on stage has a monotone voice. The material almost works but he loses his audience through the diesel drone. He makes every topic sound so boring, which is of itself a talent, but not one appreciated by tonight's punters. The football boys are in full cry. Swept along on a tide of alcohol and the untethered horseplay of ridicule, the rest of the audience join in. Ted rings the bell and actually has to push the man away from the microphone. The crowd, responding to the emperor's question, jeer and give the comic the thumbs down. Leona fades the microphone out and plays in a recording of police sirens. The poor sod has never got beyond two minutes and he has been trying for a year.
Next up is a girl from the checkout aisles, a karaoke queen. Someone has told her she can sing but she warbles and Billy can't watch. He wishes he was deaf. She reaches for the high notes but they are kept in a box on top of the wardrobe and she has forgotten to bring her step ladder. The bell goes again and Leona hits the sound effects. There is general, raucous merriment in the audience. Faces screw up in pain. A steady stream of orders flow to and fro across the bar. Billy rejoins the conversation between his daughter and Maggie Heard.
"…yeah, Jock's fine love, like your Dad, set in his ways and a pain in the backside, but better the Devil you know."
Billy realises that he has not seen Jock since he arrived, which is most unusual. "Talking of little Devils, where is he tonight? It’s not like him to miss a chance to have a go at the acts and Ted?"
Maggie suddenly looks hard and cold. "Round the back. Actually, I'm bloody furious with him. Swanned in here at seven o'clock, picked up a bottle of Grouse and said he had some business to do. Could he use the office? He's been in conference with the Brothers Grim ever since. And he's expecting a visitor. I wouldn't mind but he knows how busy we get when the Muppets are on the bill."
Billy prefers not to ask about the business and Maggie wouldn’t say anything, anyway. Billy knows how much Maggie hates Jock using the club as his office. Sometimes he treats the place like a personal fiefdom. Jock would have made a fine Robber Baron. Maggie started the place with her husband, and while that relationship might not have been the best, Snuggle's is her baby, is the good thing that came out of all that hurt. She and Billy exchange a sharp glance. The subject is changed. Back to Bex.
"So, darling, do you take after your wonderfully talented father? Fancy a go?"
Bex pulls a face. "The singing vet? Not for me, Mags, never."
The sixteen-year-old boy is on stage. He sets up a camping table and mumbles something about the Sands of the Nile. He takes a large transparent bowl out of his props box and puts it on the table. Then he pours out three small piles of differently coloured sand from plastic carrier bags. Finally he signals to Ted, who brings out a pitcher of water.
The boy begins by pouring water into the bowl and he has to stand slightly awkwardly to use the microphone while performing his trick at the camping table, but he soon starts to gain confidence. He tells a story about an ancient Egyptian ritual, and he stirs the water with his bare hand. The water turns black and opaque. As the story unfolds, the boy places a handful of each colour of sand into the bowl of dark water. Then he extracts them, one by one, dry and unmixed. To finish he stirs the water one last time, and it becomes completely clear.
A claxon sounds. The audience, most of whom have been watching intently, quickly realise that the boy has done it. Five full minutes. There is something utterly compelling about this ingénue, something naïve and spellbinding in the way that he speaks and moves. Ted walks on and claps. Cheers all round. The boy blushes spectacularly and nearly runs off stage, only to be called back to clear away his props, and suddenly he loves it. Adrenalin. Applause. A star is born.
Blind hope fades. Gags go flat. Melodies are betrayed by shocking timing. The only success of the night so far is the teenage magician, and on stage now another stand-up is dying. His routine consists of rehashing skits from films and shows. Billy has found a new low. He has just endured the 'Dead Slug' sketch. Monty Python's legacy is safe.
The door to the main bar opens half way through a dreadful parody of the Two Ronnies’ Pispronunciation sketch and in walks a sallow-skinned young man. He is at least six foot four. His head is shaven, but shows a couple of days of growth. There is a bald patch at his right temple. The young man is thin and his clothes hang on his bones as he scowls at the crowded room, and as he walks past people he makes them feel dirty. If he has slept in the last week he shows no sign of it. The crowd at the bar parts as the youth's brooding smell drifts before him like a force field.
Rising up from behind a wall of sound, standing tall on ramparts of abuse, the comic spots the boy and goes for the obvious put downs. "Bloody hell, it's one of the walking dead. Oi, Lurch, over here, mate!" he yells, pointing at the youth. Heads swivel. Ted Line holds his bell hand still for a moment. A group of the footballers in the front row stand on their chairs and chant, "You're not welcome at the bar…you're not welcome at the bar!"
The young man ignores comments from punters and comic alike, leans on the bar, and orders a pint of snakebite.
Maggie, who has watched his progress in horror, gets up from her chair and signals to the barman that he shouldn’t serve the boy. She walks over, watched by the crowd and the comic, who provides a running commentary. Maggie hesitates, steels herself and then reaches up to tap the young man on the shoulder. Billy's move to her side is instinctive. Bex feels her heart skip a beat.
"Sorry, love", says Maggie, trying to conceal the edge in her voice.
Where are the McCoists when you need them? Billy sets his feet wide. If it comes to push and shove he wants to be ready for it. His right fist is balled. The young man turns slowly. He is trying to effect narrow Clint Eastwood eyes.
"Sorry, love, but there's a dress code. I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
The young man stares at Maggie for a few seconds and then turns to look at Billy. "Here on business. Mister Cascarino wants to see me. Tell your poodle to back off, mate."
Maggie stands her ground, going toe to toe. She is fuming. Billy recognises the look in the young man's eyes. It is a look he has worn; despair in the soul. The kid is either high or just sufficiently drunk enough to take Maggie on. Beside him Maggie is caught in the spotlight and Billy decides that it would be better if he directs her fire away from the druggie. Better for everyone. Better for Billy. He asks a question, "Where's Jock?"
He lights the blue touch paper and steps away. Maggie stands stock still for a moment, then turns slowly away from the boy and, without saying another word, she walks parallel with the bar, heading towards the far end of the room. She walks at a measured pace, letting the rocket fuse reach its zenith. Her scream is internalised, is stored and primed for another target. She disappears into the corridor that connects the main function room to the kitchen and the office while the young man resumes his place at the bar and gets his pint. Billy retreats to his seat, smiles at Bex and says, "Who'd run a pub?"
The boys are in conference and the door to the office is shut. Maggie explodes through it and the door slams into the white washed brick wall. Everyone in the room jumps. Maggie plants her hands on her desk, leans forward and measures her words. Venom. Dripping. "Who the fucking hell is that in my bar?"
Jock looks at her. He asks himself a question. It takes a moment for him to spot the answer burning in her eyes. He is genuinely dismayed. "Shit, babe, I'm sorry."
He rises from the chair and starts to move round to the front of the desk. As he does this he glances at Ken and motions to him to go and fetch the little toe rag. "I told him to use the back door, love, not the front."
Maggie stands up straight and spits out the words, "And I've told you never to use this place for that kind of stuff. I don't want it here, you understand. Not here. Why can't you meet him wherever it is that sort hang out. Under a stone. Anywhere. But not here!"
Jock holds out a hand. Placatory. "Babe, I'm really sorry. It's business. I needed somewhere private."
"Don't you bloody touch me. Private! Some fucked up druggie walks into my bar mid-show, and you call that private. Sort it, Jock, then get the hell out of my sight. I'll deal with you later."
Maggie turns to go and almost walks into the young man as he is being pushed into the room by Ken McCoist. Enough is enough. She takes one step forward and slaps the boy across the cheek. Snakebite slops out of his pint glass onto the carpet tiles.
"If you ever do that again I'll break both your legs", she says to the boy, her voice dripping with cold menace.
Ken steps back out into the corridor and watches Maggie stalk back to the bar. He licks his lips.
Out in the main auditorium a bell rings and Ted Line announces a twenty minute break. Punters and performers make for the bar. The interval scrum. Maggie flips up the counter top, hits the optic at the bottom of one of the bottles of Scotch three times and glares at a man who has the temerity to ask for three pints of bitter. She thinks about joining Billy and Bex, but decides that she needs a moment to herself. She crosses the room, steps up onto the stage and heads off towards the dressing room. Behind her the sound of normality, the sound of alcoholic conversation, continues as if nothing has happened to disturb the awful equilibrium of the evening.
Ted has a thirst on. He fancies a cold pint but doesn’t want to wait for a suitable break in the crowd at the bar. Not a problem. He heads for the kitchen and breaks out a can of lager from one of the fridges. He pulls the ring slowly so as not to make a noise. The office next door used to be a dry store for the kitchen and although the conversion work was carried out some years ago, the old access hatch between the two rooms still exists. It keeps prying eyes at bay, but not prying ears.
Ted leans his elbows on the stainless steel work surface underneath the hatch and takes a gulp from the can. The sound of his own swallow is unnerving. He thinks about lighting up a cigarette, but decides not to. The smoke would drift into the room next door. He settles for a little snooping. Working the clubs and drinking in Barnstaple's many pubs gives a man a chance to see and hear a great many wonderful things, and Ted has seen the young man before. He knows the game, and a little juice on Jock might help to keep the wolf from the door.
Jock is back behind the desk. Shaun Lloyd is sitting in Ken's chair, next to Davie. Ken is leaning against the door to prevent any more disturbances. Shaun is half way down his pint and the bottle of Grouse has sustained substantial damage. Jock has laid out a small number of plastic sachets on the veneered chipboard top of the desk.
"Nice. That red mark on your cheek suits you. Makes you look strangely healthy." Jock raises an eyebrow.
Shaun Lloyd always looks like a cadaver. He is one of the middle men. Jock never deals directly with the low-life scum who inhabit pub toilets and waste ground. Dealing for pennies is a mug's game. Shaun is one of a select few to whom Jock supplies in bulk. What they do after that is up to them, as long as Jock and the boys are left well alone by all concerned.
Shaun touches his cheek. He can still feel the sharp, smarting pain of Maggie's slap. He says nothing. Shaun lives a twilight life, moving through the rock pools and shallows of the Atlantic coast line, selling directly sometimes, but usually preferring to move the merchandise on quietly through his own network of club and playground contacts. Shaun is learning the trade, marking time while he builds a future, well aware of the rumours that Jock is getting ready to sell up. Shaun has plans.
Shaun is probably cool under pressure, Jock thinks, because he smokes weed like it is going out of fashion. Shaun never touches anything else. Never has. Pills and potions are for the boys and girls in the happy zone. Jock hates the possibility that there might be a connection between his own early life and that of the boy dealer, but nevertheless he has to admit to a sneaking regard for the sallow skin sitting in the chair opposite Maggie’s desk. Shaun is a bright lad. Jock gets down to the brass tacks.
"It's simple. This stuff on the desk is called Bliss. We have an arrangement with a certain gentleman, a mutual acquaintance if I remember correctly, who will supply us with as much of this shit as we can shift. Clubs, raves, wherever there's a market for E, there's a market for Bliss. Our good doctor is a little odd, but he's tucked up and we'll sort him out later, won't we Davie?"
"Aye, boss, with pleasure." Davie puts real feeling into that last word.
Shaun leans forward and picks up one of the sachets, turning it over in his hands, watching the yellow powder spill back and forth within. "So?" he mumbles.
"You're to try it out this weekend. This is the first batch we've received and we want to do a little market research. If it's really any good, if you do this for us, we'll give you an exclusive on distribution in and around Barnstaple." Jock leans back in his chair and stretches out his legs. He rests a tumbler of Scotch on his belly.
Shaun considers the offer. "Need to know some stuff. How it works, how much to charge, percentages."
The McCoists wait quietly. There is a background hum from the bar. The football lads are getting boisterous, chatting up girls. One or two have given Bex the eye, but she has, so far, ignored the come-ons. Leona is showing the left back how a sound desk works. Ted Line takes another swig of lager and leans a little closer to the plywood door of the serving hatch.
Jock does a smugly competent impersonation of a city slicker. "Our investment. We give you one hundred of those sachets for free. Gratis. You flog them on for a tenner a go. There's enough in each one of those sachets to blow their tiny little minds all night long. Simple as well. They just lick their fingers, take a sherbet dab and off they go to la-la land. The stuff is ninety percent MDMA with a few additions. A wee dram of Ketamine for the bells and whistles and some stuff the doctor does. All we want is everyone having a good weekend and coming back for more. You get a freebie, we create a buzz and then we ramp up. What do you think?"
Hard currency. Jock has never given Shaun anything for free. He looks for the catch, looks for the hook and line, but apart from the obvious shit associated with dealing in this sordid little world, Shaun can think of no good reason to refuse. "You're saying I get to make a grand this weekend just from this stuff and all I have to do is tell you all's well with the world?"
Jock reaches down by his chair and picks up a plastic food container full of sachets of bright yellow powder, which he puts on the desk in front of Shaun. "That's exactly what I'm saying. Give the good children of this parish a weekend to remember, if they can. Probably best to hit a couple of clubs, Friday, Saturday. Caligula's Friday. The Basement Saturday. One thing, though. The doc says to avoid booze. Give the kids the word. Water, not booze."
"That's cool". Shaun runs his fingers along the tops of the sachets. A grand in his hand. "They're used to it. Will your boys be around?"
Jock looks at each of his minders in turn. "No. On call, though. Any shit you give them a bell."
Ted's hearing is not what it was and he missed the names of the clubs. He leans still closer to the wall. He is so wrapped-up in the gathering of secrets that he doesn’t notice a tub of ladles and slatted spoons standing directly to the left hand side of the hatch. He catches the tub with his upper arm, feels the pressure of contact and withdraws, moving his right arm across his twisting body to steady the thing before it makes any noise, but he is too slow. The tub has tilted too far. Disaster moves in painfully slow motion. The sound of metal rings out on hard, cold floor tiles.
Ted stoops to pick the spoons and ladles up, to hide the evidence, but he is far too old and far too clumsy. He tries to straighten himself up so that he can move away from the hatch but the door to the office is already open. Ken is in the kitchen before Ted can think. The old man's arm is twisted up behind his back and he is manhandled into the office.
Shaun slips out and this time he does take the rear exit. Tucked under his jacket he has a plastic box full of rocket flavoured sherbet. He can think of a couple of mates who will try it out for him. Always best to do a little research.
Ted is pinned down in one of the chairs with Jock snarling in his face. "Been having a good earwig, have we, Ted? Having a good fucking time? Maggie was right. Private my fucking arse. What did you hear, Ted, what did you hear?"
Ted feels Ken's full weight on his shoulders. He cannot breathe and his heart is racing. He needs a cigarette, he needs nicotine now. "Don't know what you're on about. Wanted a cold drink, that's all. Just wanted…"
"Check it out". Snarls Jock, and Davie leaves the room and goes into the kitchen. "There's a whole fucking bar out there. You know, the place you'd never leave if you could exercise what's left of your free bloody will. What were you doing in the kitchen?"
"Drink, Jock, a drink. It's heaving out there. Got a can out the fridge, turned round to leave and bumped the stupid fucking spoons." Ken digs his fingers into Ted's bony shoulders. Even though he is wearing a sports jacket, Ted can feel Ken's nails as they plough the material into his skin.
Davie returns with an open can of lager. Jock looks at the can, feels its weight and nods to Ken, who, although he does not let go of Ted, relaxes his grip.
Maggie is back in the main bar with Billy and Bex. She apologises for the disturbance and orders another large scotch. She is breaking her personal rule. She doesn’t want apple juice right now. She checks her watch and looks round for Ted Line. Time to get the show back on the road. The audience is getting restless and with most of Barnstaple Town's first team squad in attendance she doesn’t want any more trouble. Billy tells her to sit tight and goes over and interrupts Leona and her newly discovered football beau. She tells him that Ted went for a drink, that he’s probably down in the kitchen having a fag.
Billy checks the bar again and then heads down to the kitchen, but he finds nothing there except a load of cutlery on the floor. He hears voices in the next room. Billy knocks on the office door and enters, finding Ted surrounded by the local hoods. Jock is speaking.
"If you weren't so bloody lame and decrepit I'd have the boys take you for a ride. You're a fucking liability…" Billy is in the room now and Jock’s train of thought is broken. "What the fuck do you want?"
Billy sees the look of desperation in Ted's eyes. "Him", he says, gesturing to Ken McCoist so that he will move away from the terrified funny man. Jock nods when Ken looks at him for instructions. "Maggie's already spitting bricks, Jock, you don't want to upset her any more. Come on Ted, time to introduce the next star."
The shakedown of a defenceless old man serves only to confirm Billy's already well developed sense of prejudice. Jock Cascarino is a bully and Billy is secretly glad that the skin-headed youth has slipped a sliver of ice into the bosom of Jock's relationship with Maggie. It serves the bastard right, and if it all goes pear-shaped, Billy will be there to pick up the pieces, just like he is doing now. He has no particular liking for Ted Line, but even Billy Whitlow can feel sorry for an underdog.
Jock sits on the desk, arms folded across his chest, and smiles. "Just making sure the old duffer wasn't going to do himself any harm". He shakes his head. "Piss off Ted, go and give them what they want."
Billy opens the door for Ted. Just as he is about to walk out into the corridor Jock says, "You're going to be okay? You're not going to have any more accidents, are you?"
Ted understands the difference between a consideration and a question delivered with menaces. He smiles weakly at Billy and together they hurry down the corridor and into the main bar. Billy asks him what the hell is going on, but Ted shrugs and makes his way to the stage.
Leona says farewell to her new admirer and resumes her position at the sound desk. Chumbawamba blares out of the PA one more time as Ted checks his list and calls up the next act. A young girl in tight jeans and a tassel fringed jacket climbs onto the stage. The music stops.
Ted steps up to the microphone with the girl in tow. "Tell us your name love and what you’re going to do."
"My name is Tania Watson and tonight I'm going to be Shania Twain".
Groans from the audience. Ted winces. Leona cues up the backing track. Tania starts to wiggle her ample hips.
The show is over and the sound of cat calls and claxons are a memory. The football boys have gone home with team bonds much as they ever were, but Leona’s new sound engineering protégé has a beer mat with a phone number tucked into his trouser pocket. Bonding of a different kind.
The young magician gave a creditable encore, performing most of Fearson's Hookup without mishap, although he did miss his mouth with the cigarette at the end. He finished with a series of Productions and Vanishes amongst the audience, the old coin behind the ear stuff, and then, like Cinderella, he left with his meal and beer voucher before last orders when his Dad turned up to give him a lift home.
Jock has left the building too. Once the business with Shaun was concluded and Ted Line's cards were marked, he slipped out the back door, choosing discretion rather than confrontation. Like the boy magician, Jock is tucked up at home with a hot drink. He will wait for Maggie, and has already practised his apology. It will never, ever happen again. Right now he means it.
Ken has been given the job of keeping an eye on Ted. Jock has no doubt the old comic overheard some of the conversation with Shaun and he also has no doubt that the bugger will try to use the information, although he has no immediate fears regarding sirens and tyres crunching on gravel. Ted could be tricky once in a while, but most of the time he was predictably manageable.
Punters drift away until only the hardcore remain and the last hour of the evening unwinds. Leona packs away the sound desk, running cables back up to the wings of the stage, while Ted broods quietly at the far end of the bar. From where Billy is sitting at the other end of the bar he cannot help but catch Ted's eye. He finds himself drifting in and out of the conversation. Bex is being introduced to Leona by Maggie.
Comparisons. Two seventeen year old girls with lists. School and College. Boys. Music. Hunks. Clothes. Leona and Bex flare, covering the ground like a bush fire. Words come out in staccato bursts, punctuated by laughter and the favourite contemporary phrases of the day; "Oh my God… Wicked…Cool". Billy lets the sound waves crash over his head, thoroughly enjoying every moment of the drowning, until his eyes drift back to shore and Ted Line.
Ted has finally caught Billy's attention and he beckons Billy over, mouthing something that Billy cannot understand. Ted is wreathed in cigarette smoke. Billy smiles at Bex and the ladies, and excuses himself, picks up his beer and walks over to where Ted is sitting. Ted offers Billy a vacant bar stool, but Billy prefers to stand, leaning on the bar. He has to bend forward to hear Ted, who speaks in whispers. Furtive. Nervous.
"Can I get you a drink?"
Billy looks at his bottle of beer, which is nearly empty. "Yeah, okay. You alright?"
Ted nods, raises his hand for the barman and puts Billy's beer on his tab. He stubs out the last knockings of a cigarette, reaches for the pack and stops. Ted fidgets on his stool, looking down all the while at the polished wood of the bar. He coughs. "I know we're not exactly the best of…well, you know. But I need some advice. Artiste to artiste, like."
Billy has watched Ted on stage since the incident in the office. The man might not be funny, but he is a professional, time served, and he has stumbled over lines and introductions all the way through the second half of the show. Something is on his mind. Billy assumes it’s the muscle.
"No problem, Ted. I know what you mean. I don’t think either one of us is a fan of the Wiegie Weirdo." Ironic smiles all round. "Personally I'd ignore the bastard. Just throwing his weight around. You know how he likes to be the Big-I-Am."
Ted can still feel the squeeze in his shoulders. Should he tell Billy or should he cut and run? "Any other time and I'd do just that. I'm not scared of him, you know. The world is full of scum like him. Always got something to prove. I’m just sick and tired of this shit, and the point is, Billy, the point is I'm not sure what to do next."
Billy is starting to feel a little confused. What is Ted driving at? "Do next? Nothing, I suppose. Put it down to experience." He drags a vacant bar stool over and sits down. This is going to take longer than he thought.
"No can do, mate. I know a secret. A big fat secret. Question is, how much is it worth?"
So, thinks Billy, the old bastard wasn't as innocent as he made out. "I can't help you. I don't know what you're talking about. You'll have to explain."
Ted considers this. No names, no pack drill. He doesn’t want to dilute the potential proceeds, but he needs a point of view. "I didn't mean to do it, but we all saw that kid in the bar. Then he gets escorted down to the office by one of Jock's gorillas. Come the interval I came over for a drink but the bar was a mess, so, I popped down to the kitchen and grabbed a can. Overheard voices. Next thing I know I've got my ear against the wall."
"Yeah, and your arse in a vice". Billy sees an opportunity, a chance to open up a route to Maggie. Just maybe there’s something in this.
"Yeah, that as well. Anyway, turns out the boy is a dealer. Jock is setting something up this weekend, something to do with nightclubs." Ted is not being entirely frank, particularly as he already knew who Shaun was. "As I say, the question is, what is that sort of information worth?"
Billy sees another opportunity. Broken kneecaps. "Count me out, Ted. I don’t want anything to do with it. We all know Jock's money is dirty, so what's the point. The Old Bill know. Shit, some of them are probably on the payroll. I think the question should be, who are you going to tell. Might as well be Ghostbusters for all the good it'll do."
Ted is like a gambler. He’s lost his shirt but he’s convinced his trousers are lucky. "Jock doesn't know that. I could make a few bob, afford a nicer flat maybe."
"Piss it away, more like."
Ted looks sour. "Whatever. Anyway, who said anything about the Old Bill? There's other firms."
Billy takes a swig of beer and shakes his head. He suddenly feels tired. The old comic is one punch line short of a joke. "Come on, Ted, get real. So what if Jock is dealing. Everyone knows. You're talking about blackmail. That's a one way ticket. You know it."
Ted sighs, reaches for his cigarettes, flips the top of the box, takes one out and taps it on the bar so that it slides vertically through his nicotine-yellow fingers. "That’s the problem. But he wouldn't expect it coming from someone like you. Not if you threatened to tell Maggie. She'd believe you. She's Jock's Achilles." Ted smiles. Stained teeth. The viper in the nest.
Billy stands. He leans forward and whispers in Ted's ear. "Fuck off, you old git. Do your own dirty work."
As he walks back to the girls, signalling to the barman to top up their drinks, he wonders whether Ted really has the balls. Useful, though. Information is power. A bit of gossip to store away for a rainy day. He rejoins the girls' conversation and it’s like he has never been away.
Leona breaks the flow. "Thanks for the drink, Billy".
"Yeah, thanks Dad. We're just comparing notes. Can't wait to get the summer over. Exams and then travel. Leona wants to go to Africa."
Billy looks surprised. "Africa? I thought you were set on London. Get your qualifications and hit Shaftesbury Avenue."
Leona looks at him, head tilted slightly sideways. "Yeah, I did, sort of, but Bex has been telling me about her gap year. Sri Lanka to work with turtles and elephants. Sounds a bit Discworld, but brilliant too. It would do me good to see a bit of the world and there's so much I could help with. You know, voluntary stuff, well-drilling or something. It would be so cool."
Full steam ahead. The girls head off in a thousand different directions, leaving Billy's middle aged paunch trailing in their wake. He feels like a baiter being dragged along behind a yacht, swamped by the swell of their surging chatter. Brilliant. He loves the sheer audacity of youth.
They head off on a new tangent. "Oh God, yeah, home is where the heart is, but you've got to get some distance. Don't get me wrong, I love it down here, especially in the summer, but it's so parochial. Half the kids at college have no idea. They're going to live and die within sight of their parents. And don't get me going on the Cornish. Jesus." Leona laughs out loud. A local flavour. Prejudice of a kind.
Bex agrees. "I know. It's just the same in Oxford. Dreaming spires and all that, but you do get to hate the students. All that town and gown nonsense. And they despise those good old Bucks boys. Local rivalry is great. When Wycombe and Oxford meet at football there's always trouble. No way am I going to study at home. Mum wants me to 'cos of the loans, but I fancy Edinburgh or Belfast."
Billy has never quite been able to shake off the provincial history of the six counties. Despite the peace process his first thoughts are always of paramilitary graffiti, marching bands and shots to the back of the head. He sort of knows this is one of those generational divides, but the basic prejudice lingers. "Not Belfast. Anywhere but Belfast!"
Bex winks at Leona. Conspiracy. "Anywhere? Okay, Baghdad University. Student exchange."
A pincer movement. "Or what about Tehran, or Sarajevo, no, I've got it… Mogadishu!"
Billy rolls his eyes and gives in. He settles for a full tactical withdrawal and goes back to thoughts of Maggie and Jock. The girls laugh raucously. Not a bad night, thinks Billy, when all is said and done. A few points scored. He can’t see Maggie anywhere and it occurs to him that things might have gone too far. Should he be worried?
Leona is getting serious. "I mean, college is great, I'm doing something I love, but it's only this place that keeps me sane. Snuggle's makes my world go round. How sad is that? Your Dad's not bad, well, pretty bloody amazing actually, but it's hardly the bright lights, is it. Africa and then London. That's the plan. For the moment this will do. It really helps with my studies and it pays for some fun."
Bex is pleased with the compliment about her Dad. It makes her feel warm and close to him, and appreciative of Leona. "That's the only problem with my stuff. You can't really get proper experience when you're still at school. The nearest I get to fixing-up animals is the Saturday job at the stables. Mostly mucking out. But I love it. It's great when we do the schooling for kids. All those little faces perched on great big ponies, and they learn so fast at that age."
The girls are finishing their drinks. Both are on vodka kicks. It’s almost time to hit the road.
"Hey, what are you doing on Saturday?" Leona is asking the question. "Only Maggie gave me the night off for my birthday. Trouble with this job is you work most weekends and I've sort of lost touch with some of my friends. Even the boys are working."
Bex pricks up her ears. "Boys?"
"Yeah, I'm sort of seeing one of the boys who works here. But they're working. Dave and Rob. But the guy from the football might be there and he might bring a friend or two. We're planning on meeting up at The Basement. Fancy it?"
Bex is shocked. Leona seems so straight. "But if you're seeing, Dave…you naughty girl!"
Leona grins. Wicked and warm. "I'm far too young for all that serious stuff. Anyway, I don't sleep with them, well, not with most of them. This girl just wants to have fun and when you're a poor student it helps if the boys have a few quid in their pocket. Say you'll come, please."
Billy pretends to be equally shocked, but can’t keep it up for long. He will be in Bristol and he has no right to insist that his seventeen year old princess sit at home all alone while he is out and about. Of course she can go. He will give her enough cash for a cab if she needs it, although The Basement, pulsing as it does at the heart of Bideford town centre, is on home territory for Bex.
Bex tugs her Dad's arm as she replies. "On one condition. You come over in the afternoon and we get all girly. Hair, makeup, all that. Then you can show me Bideford in all its glory." She checks with her Dad. "That's okay, isn't it, Dad?"
It is a deal. Lobster Jack's followed by The Basement. Billy will be home by three. The clubs go on until at least then so he should be back in time to make sure his darling girl and her new best friend are safely tucked up for the night in the land of innocent dreams. Billy is a father, and although every woman that he has got drunk with, slept with and fought with is another man's daughter, he still believes in miracles. The immaculate Bex, and, by association, the sweet but slightly flawed Leona.
As they get up to leave Billy looks for Maggie but he still can’t see her. He quickly checks the corridor and sees a thin slice of light shining out from under the office door. She doesn’t need to hang a do not disturb sign on the door handle. Maggie wants to be alone. Billy sighs and then holds the main door open and the girls walk out into the night. Billy and Bex are giving Leona a lift home. Walking across the car park Billy hears one word echoing off the inside of his skull.