Thursday, November 25, 2004

Day 25

Today was much easier, yesterday seemed a bit like going through the motions like I was stalling to fill in time, but then I guess every writer (get me!) feels like that at some stage. Over the magic 40k mark now, should be downhill from here!

The audition went fairly well, at least as far as Natalie and Astrid were concerned. They were biased, but the producer seemed reasonably happy as well. I hadn’t stumbled over anything and he said I was obviously very familiar and comfortable with my material and my choice of films. He then explained that the editing staff would intercut appropriate pieces from the DVD’s to illustrate my dialogue. At the end of the process, a preview tape would be produced and all auditionees would be invited back to view it. I was the last person auditioning that day, and after Natalie had finished, she joined myself and Astrid for a drink at the Kro Bar just up the road. Over pints of Carlsberg Export, Natalie intimated that I’d been one of the better applicants and that some of the people had been so bad it had been embarrassing. She reckoned I was a shoe in for the real programme, if it was made. We celebrated with more beer, then Natalie left us to meet her boyfriend, whilst Astrid and me jumped a cab up to Rusholme for a curry.
“How does it feel to be a TV personality then, Mr Kelly?” she asked, over the mixed starters.
“Hold your equine beasts, love,” I said, smiling, “they might decide I was a big dork and bounce me out before they start. I wouldn’t blame them.”
“You are always putting yourself down. You have a lot going for you George, you just need it bringing out of you. Do you want to make subs for the rest of your life?”
“No, but, you know, it’s safe, I guess I’m scared of losing what I’ve got,” I said.
“What do you mean?”
“Well, what I’ve got at home, Marlene, Shuggsy, mum,” I paused, looking at Astrid right in her beautiful dark eyes, “and you.”
“Stop it!” she laughed, “well, you know, Marlene has moved out, Shuggsy seems a bit distracted I think and…” she stopped.
“And?” I said, making a winding motion with my hand.
“And, well, your mother won’t be around forever.” I nodded, “you have to start thinking of yourself.” She took my hand across the table. “I know we’ve not known each other long, but I know you’re sweet, you’re kind, you’re funny, you know lots of stuff.”
“Some of it almost useful,” I interrupted.
“Mm, and you could be doing so much more with your life.” I got that funny feeling in my stomach again, and it didn’t have anything to do with the onion bhajis. Oh, bollocks, might as well say it.
“You know what,” I started, “I…..” I took a swig of my Cobra to work up to it, “I think….you’re absolutely right.” Shit, couldn’t say it.
“I know I’m right!” she said, giving my arm a playful punch. I think our relationship moved on then, well, I’m saying it definitely did. After the meal, we took a taxi all the way home and Astrid stayed over. Only this time I wasn’t on the sofa.

It was strange waking up in bed with someone else. Although over the years, Marlene and myself had shared a bed, it was on a purely platonic basis, usually when we’d sat up talking half the night in one or other of our beds, and had just fallen asleep at some point. And yes, I hadn’t given Marlene much of a though the previous evening, does that make me a bad person? I was reminded of her when I went to make coffee the next morning as Astrid showered. There were two messages on the answering service, both from Mike Bradley, who I’d also given little or no thought to. The first had been around the time my audition started, saying he was planning on visiting the hospital again that afternoon, the second around eight o’clock asking if I wanted to go for dinner with him. I felt a bit shitty then, not only because of Marlene, but also because the poor bloke had just come back to England and now he was on his own in a town he probably barely recognised anymore and he was asking for a bit of company over a meal, whilst his daughter lay in a hospital bed and her supposed best friend was out enjoying himself. I decided to call him as soon as Astrid left for work and attempt to make amends somehow. I made coffee and toast and Astrid joined me soon after, looking stunning in a simple black trouser suit with a powder blue blouse. Mind you, she’d look great in a spud sack. We kissed, then both laughed. If she was thinking this was weird, I was in cloud cuckoo land, you could have almost shot me right then and I would have been happy. We discussed our plans for the day, unfortunately Astrid had some sort of book launch to attend that evening in Liverpool, which meant that she would be staying over, I said it was OK, I would be out, either at the hospital or with Mike Bradley, and failing that Shuggsy was due back later that afternoon. We ate the rest of our breakfast like a proper couple, then she left me with a lingering kiss and I crashed out on the settee, enjoying the chance to have a day off in peace.

I must have dozed off for a while, because it was late morning when the doorbell went and kept going. I woke with a start, thinking it was probably Gareth back again, demanding that I find Be Lucky! immediately and burn in front of the executors of Guy Mattinson’s estate or something. I answered the door, yawning, and was faced by two blokes in dark suits, and long trenchcoats. For one horrible moment, I thought it was the Dream Police come to real life, but when one of them held out an identification badge and introduced himself as Detective Constable Warwick and his partner as Detective Constable Haslam, I relaxed slightly. Then I went on my guard again, as I concluded that they had to be here for Shuggsy. I was right as well. After I showed them in and offered them the obligatory mug of tea, DC Haslam asked if this was the residence of Allan Burns. I affirmed that it was, then added that he wasn’t in.
“Do you have any idea when he’ll be returning, Mr…?” Haslam asked.
“Kelly. Not really, he’s a plasterer and he’s away on a job in Wales at the moment. Can I ask what this is about?”
“Er, we just need to ask Mr Burns a few questions in connection with an outstanding matter.” Warwick reached inside his suit and pulled out a card.
“If he does return today, could I ask that you ring me on one of the numbers on this card please Mr Kelly?” he said, passing a card over, “it’s quite important.” With business concluded, the two policeman swallowed the rest of their brews and marched out, with me trailing impotently behind. Fuck it, I was starting to believe that Gareth had a point about this karma malarkey.

I spent the rest of the day at the hospital, mostly in company with Mike Bradley, and always with Marlene. She certainly seemed a lot brighter, but something was missing, a spark which I put down to a combination of shock, tiredness and the circumstances which led to the accident. Neither of us mentioned Maarten, who still hadn’t been traced, and we skirted around our recent disagreements. I desperately wanted to talk to her about both, but I didn’t want to make her anxious and I especially didn't want to bring either up when her dad was around. I don’t think he’d got over his initial coolness towards me, and it certainly hadn’t been helped by me going AWOL yesterday. We parted on better terms though and I was thankful when he told me that he had rung one of his old buddies from when he lived here and they had arranged to meet up for a meal. I recommended a couple of places to eat out of courtesy, but he said that his mate had already booked somewhere. I took the bus home and wondered what I’d do if Shuggsy was there, waiting for me.

As it was, I needn’t have worried. The house was empty, and as I let myself in, I picked up the phone and checked for messages. There were two, one from Astrid saying she missed me and wished she didn’t have to stay in Liverpool but would text me later (aah!) and one from the carer at mum’s nursing home, telling me that mum wasn’t up to travelling back that evening and could I ring her when I got the message. I called immediately. The carer told me that mum had been in some pain all day, and had been given some steroids to help and she was now asleep with the aid of a couple of sleeping pills. I asked if she’d seemed OK when she came back to the home last Monday and the woman intimated that mum had looked weary and had not been herself all week. I had rung on the Wednesday but she’d been quite chatty, asking after Marlene and remembering some events from the past. I knew that she had been stressed and tired and Marlene’s accident but hadn’t thought it would affect her quite so badly. The carer said that it was better if mum stayed where she was for the weekend but that I was welcome to visit. She didn’t say it but I could almost hear it in her voice – “by welcome I mean insist.” Now I was torn, I didn’t want to go off and leave Marlene and I certainly didn’t want to abandon Shuggsy to the cops without warning him. I tried his mobile again, but it was turned off and I couldn’t leave a message. I texted him again, telling him to ring me as soon as he got the message, and make sure he did. Then I did the only thing I could think of doing, given the circumstances. I went to the Beehive to get pissed.

Word Count: 1,711
Total Count: 42,060
% above target: 0.92%
Words to go: 7,940

Day 24

I had a cursory look round for the book after Gareth had departed in the wake of his unsettling bombshell, but to no avail. I thought it had been my room somewhere, but even though I looked in most of the obvious places (under the bed, bookshelf, windowsill, under the pillow) it didn’t turn up. I wasn’t too perturbed, it probably would surface eventually. The only snag was that Gareth knew where I lived now and he’d kept going on about how he’d come back when I found it and get rid of it for me. How he hoped to do that I didn’t know, if, as he insisted, you had to pass it on to a person for the bad luck to end. Personally, I thought he was a bit tapped in the head, how could a book cause luck, good or bad? True, I’d had a run of good fortune since gaining the book, but I really didn’t see how it had worked. Gareth had seemed genuinely spooked, but then again he could just have been an unlucky person anyway and being in possession of a ‘cursed’ book might have just fed his paranoia. Plus, it surely wasn’t the only copy of Be Lucky! in circulation, so were there hundreds of people experiencing equal amounts of good and bad luck all over Britain? Whatever the explanation, I had more pressing matters to think about.

Marlene’s condition remained unchanged for the next two days, but I received some better news on Wednesday, which also coincided with her father arriving. He rang me from the airport, and I told him that he might as well come to the house first of all. He arrived by taxi half an hour later.

Fifteen years had thinned his hair, and added a little weight to his frame, but his complexion spoke of near constant sunshine, even if he looked a little grey round the eyes, which I took to be a symptom of his convalescence from the heart attack. He offered a firm handshake and I showed him into the living room. He took an appraising look around the place, no doubt he could have fitted our humble abode into his condo several times over but he didn’t show or say it. I offered him coffee, but he asked for tea, saying that it was one of the few things he missed about England, a decent cuppa. The other thing he missed wasn’t in the house though, and Marlene obviously dominated our conversation. I didn’t mention about her recent departure, waiting to see if he brought it up, if Marlene had e-mailed him about it.
“Actually, she hasn’t been in contact for a couple of weeks. Do you know if anything was troubling her? Normally, she e-mails me twice a week at least,” he said after about five minutes.
“Not that I know of, I think she had been busy at work and with her college course.” That sounded a bit lame, Marlene would have made sure she contacted her dad normally, and nothing got in the way of that, least of all her job. We chatted about the accident for a while, I didn’t have much to add, and I was aware that he was watching me quite intently. I wondered if he knew I was holding something back and tried to change the subject, talking about visiting hours and the hospital in an effort to focus his mind on Marlene’s current whereabouts. He took the hint, asking how far the hospital was. I told him that I didn’t have any transport but offered to call a taxi, and also asked if he wanted to stay at the house, explaining about mum and where Shuggsy was. He politely declined, saying that he didn’t want to be under my feet, and said that he’d get a hotel room, asking if there were any hotels I could recommend. The town wasn’t overly blessed with reasonable places to stay, but a Travelodge had opened recently fairly near the Infirmary and I rang to secure a room. It might not have been what he was used to, but I knew they had Travelodges in the USA because Marlene had brought home a Sleepy Bear that was the chain’s mascot when she had visited him a few years back.
“How many nights?” I asked, putting the receptionist on hold.
“Say five nights for now. I can always add more if I need to.” I made the arrangements, then rang for a taxi. I asked if it was OK to share the cab, being aware that he might have wanted to see Marlene alone. He said it was fine, I said that I’d wait outside the room for as long as he wanted alone with her. It was an awkward situation and for some reason I had the feeling that he wasn’t sure about me. I’m sure Marlene must have told him the what our relationship was, unless she was making more of it than there was. I guessed that he was wondering why she hadn’t been in contact, and why I was being a little vague and evasive about his questions. When he had left England we had just done our A levels and Marlene was considering which university to attend and we as far as he knew we were school friends, I suppose our relationship had changed quite a lot over the intervening years.
As we were in the taxi after leaving the Travelodge, where Mr Bradley had checked in leaving the meter running in five minutes flat, my mobile buzzed insistently in my pocket. It was the friendly nurse from the hospital, and her voice was tremulous, but with happiness.
“Marlene’s regained consciousness!” she said, bless her, you’d think she knew her, but I guess she did having spent half a week looking after her.
“That’s fantastic news!” I said, Marlene’s dad looking at me inquisitively. I gave him a thumbs up. “We’re on our way round now, actually. I’ve got Marlene’s father with me.”
“That’s nice, he’ll be relieved I guess.”
“Yes, I’ll tell him now and we’ll be there in about ten minutes,” I said, peering out of the rain streaked window at the passing buildings to estimate a time of arrival. I filled Mr Bradley in on the news and he almost whooped with joy. His face visibly lifted and I thought for a moment he was going to high five me.

When we reached the hospital, I hurried to the ICU, Marlene’s father keeping pace. When we got to her room, I looked in through the window and saw that the friendly nurse was right, as Marlene was sitting plumped up, her eyes half open. I motioned to the nurse, who I should call Caitlin, because I did know her name and she came out to see us. I introduced Mr Bradley to her.
“It’s Mike,” he said, shaking her hand. Funny, I’d never known his christian name, in all the years I’d known Marlene. Caitlin said that we could go in but wouldn’t be able to stay long as she was still very fragile. Mike virtually ran in there, but I hung back, letting him enjoy their reunion. Her face lit up when she saw him and he hugged her as best he could with all the wires and tubes coming out of her. I took a walk down the corridor and left them to it, I felt a bit voyeur like watching them.

With the cloud of uncertainty over Marlene at least temporarily gone, I prepared for my audition at the BBC in a more positive mood. Astrid came round on Thursday lunchtime, ostensibly to give me some moral support, but also, I suspected to make sure I didn’t back out at the last minute and also to make sure I was dressed properly. Although I’d been well presented when I’d been on dates with her so far, she’d seen some of my fashion horrors in the past in photographs that were lying around the house and warned me that I wasn’t going to appear on camera looking like a student shoegazer, as she put it. Natalie had e-mailed me a brief outline of what the programme makers were after during the week, to enable me to tailor my piece. I’d written a brief script for myself, in between worrying about, and visiting Marlene, which I’d tried to commit to memory as best as I could to stop myself sounding stilted. I’d finally settled on the DVD’s of This Is Spinal Tap and Goodfellas, not particularly because they were my absolutely favourite films, if I’d gone on that criteria it would have been Dark Star and Star Wars, but because there were more extras to talk about on my selections. Spinal Tap especially was crammed with extra goodies, being a real delight for fans of the film, with promotional videos, background material and spoof TV commercials amongst other treats, in addition to the usual director and cast commentaries and over an hour of never seen before material. I probably could’ve filled my allotted fifteen minutes with that alone but had written what I thought was a good overview of the Scorsese classic as well. Two costume changes and an overhaul of my hair later, Astrid pronounced me fit to be seen by the public, or at least the producers of the show. We had a couple of hours to kill before we needed to set off, so I went through my script with my audience of one. You might be thinking, didn’t he have an appointment with the Initial Care counsellor, if you’ve been paying attention that is, and yes you’d have been right. But I cancelled it, or at least postponed it for now. I wasn’t in the right frame of mind and thought that I’d become sidetracked with Marlene’s accident and moving out and mum’s health. Alright, excuses, excuses, but I wanted to be clear what I wanted to get out of the sessions before I committed to them. And besides, when Astrid announced she was taking the afternoon off to be with me, I couldn’t bring myself to tell her that I was seeing a counsellor because I thought I was losing my mind, it would’ve given anyone second thoughts, let alone someone I’d only just started going out with.

Word Count: 1,734

Wednesday, November 24, 2004

Day 23

The next three days were amongst the worst in my life. Marlene’s condtion actually worsened over the few hours we were at the hospital on the Saturday night. Shuggsy and I went by taxi because he had too much to drink to drive. Astrid volunteered to stay with mum which was brilliant of her, considering this was only the third time she’d been with me properly. We were allowed to see Marlene when we got there but had only been in the room for about fifteen minutes when the monitor started beeping erratically. I panicked and called for a nurse and we were ushered out into the corridor where we basically stayed for the next three hours. I alternated between drinking crap coffee out of the machine, ringing Astrid and talking morosely with Shuggsy. At about two am, a doctor finally came out to see us and said she was stable and comfortable, and basically there was nothing else they could do at that time but wait. He stopped short of suggesting that we carry on waiting as well, basically subliminally saying that we should go home. Before we did, I sneaked a look at Marlene lying in her intensive care bed, wires attaching her to machines, her chestnut hair billowing on the pillow and sallow skin giving her the appearance of a pre-Raphaelite corpse. I suddenly had a vision of something I’d witnessed unconsciously and shuddered as if someone had walked over my grave.

The next day I rang PC Douglas and tried to piece together with her how Marlene came to be lying where she was. She asked me how well I knew Maartin Van Elst, the registered owner of the car she’d been found in. I told her what I knew, which wasn’t much, that he had worked at Marlene’s company for about a year as far as I knew but I didn’t know where he lived. When she asked me what their relationship was, I told her that they had recently started going out together but had known each other through work as long as he had been there as far as I knew. She said that she’d check with the personnel department of the company for an address as the vehicle was registered via the company. I vaguely registered that he was an even bigger twat than I took him for having a company car. She then asked for some of Marlene’s personal details and intimated that the reason she was asking me was because Marlene’s father was resident in America and I was down as her emergency contact in her purse which had been recovered at the scene of the crash. That gave me a start for some reason, that I was basically her next of kin in this country. She thanked me and said she’d be in touch if they needed anything else from me. I added a phone call to Marlene’s father to my mental list of tasks. I didn’t know whether it would be a good idea coming so soon after his heart attack but I knew I’d have to do it before long as she would want him to know.
“Are you OK?” I felt a hand on my shoulder. It was Astrid. Yes she had stayed the night, but not in the circumstances I would have chosen, obviously. Anyway, I’d slept on the settee and given Astrid my bed. She’d still been awake when we’d got back from the hospital, mum finally admitted defeat around midnight after I’d rung to give a progress report. She’d made us all a hot chocolate and we’d talked for a while then Shuggsy tactfully (for him) retreated to his bedroom. To be honest, I hadn’t given any thought to the sleeping arrangements after what had happened but I decided that the time was hardly right, so suggested the settee for me. She looked like she was about to demur, but I insisted that I would be OK, so she gave me a kiss and hugged me and told me everything would be fine. And the funny thing was, I believed her.

We went to the hospital again that afternoon, dropping Astrid off on the way at her house. Once again the doctor told us there wasn’t much change in her condition but that she was reacting to stimulus and a brain scan had shown no sign of damage, but the internal injuries were causing some concern, but they couldn’t assess the full damage yet. I decided myself that there was not much point hanging around this time but collared one of the friendlier nurses and asked her to ring me on my mobile if there was any change in Marlene’s condition, good or bad. Then we drove home where I made two phone calls, first to Grant to tell him I wouldn’t be in work all next week, he wasn’t overly impressed but relented when I gave him the circumstances, and even told me to call him if I needed anything, which was surprisingly altruistic for him. The next call was more difficult, to Marlene’s father. I spoke to the effervescent Cindy first who didn’t seem to register who I was but passed the phone on to her ‘honey’. It had been probably fifteen years since I last spoke to Mr Bradley but he sounded almost exactly the same, albeit with a slight West Coast twang to his accent. He was definitely surprised to hear it was me, but no doubt expected that it wasn’t good news or else I wouldn’t have been ringing. To be fair to him, he was quite calm about it, but then again I didn’t tell him that the driver of the car was a bloke who his only daughter had been seeing for less than a month and had decided to leave her in the wreckage. I gave him as many details as I could and wasn’t surprised when he said that he would get a flight over to England as soon as he could. It was hardly my place to put him off and I’m sure in his position I would have done the same. I just hoped he came alone, I’m not sure I could cope with Cindy as well. I breathed a sigh of relief when I put the phone down and went to my room, stuck a Jellyfish CD on and crashed out.

On Monday mum went back to the home in a subdued mood, looking more weary than when she arrived. I wasn’t amazed, all that she was used to at the house that was a constant for her was going wrong and I’m sure she was wondering whether to bother coming home at weekends. She became a bit tearful as we were saying goodbye and made me promise to ring her every day with news of Marlene’s progress. I went back in the house feeling a little fractious and was glad in a way that Shuggsy had gone back to South Wales for the week to complete the job they’d started. I decided to spend the day with a few DVD’s making my choice for the Viewer’s Commentary audition and then go to the hospital later on.

I was only halfway through Goodfellas (Joe Pesci as Tommy Devito had just shot Spider the bar-boy – played by Michael Impereoli, Christopher Moltesante in The Sopranos, trivia fans) when an insistent banging on the front door roused me from my seat. I opened the door to be greeted by a wild haired man who I recognised, but wasn’t sure why.
“Yeah?” I asked, none too graciously.
“Are you the guy from the book shop, the one who bought my books?” Shit he’d come to rob me for a refund because I’d ripped him off was my first thought. “The one I gave the book called Be Lucky to?” Now the penny drops.
“Yeah, that’s right, how did you get my address?”
“The bloke at the shop gave it me, tall guy, long hair.” Sean. I’d have to have words. “I have to speak to you.”
“You’d better come in, I guess,” I said. I opened the door for him, he came in then loitered in the hall way before I showed him into the living room.
“Have you still got the book?” he asked. He looked as though he hadn’t slept for days and there was four days growth of beard round his saggy jowls.
“Yeah, somewhere.” I said.
“Then you’ve got to get rid of it!” he said urgently.
“Because it’ll be bringing you bad luck.” Had I entered a Hammer House of Horror film? He then went on to tell me a tale of how he’d been given the book in similar circumstances. At first, he’d had good luck like me, winning big at the bookies and even on the lottery. But then he’d noticed things going wrong for friends and family; his brother had been hit on the head by falling masonry and suffered a fractured skull, his daughter was going to meet her boyfriend when she was hit by a car and broke both legs, his mother’s brand new car was hit by two vehicles as she drove it off the garage forecourt, his father had a stroke, a friend’s business went bust and his boss was beaten up outside a pub. Then to top it all, not long after he’d won a holiday to Tahiti for two in a competition, his wife was killed in a train accident. He was on the verge of crying as he recounted how she was preparing to get off at her station when the train derailed and her carriage turned over and rolled down an embankment.
“And that’s why I got rid of the book.” I was almost too flabbergasted to speak.
“But why the fuck did you have to give it to me, why didn’t you just leave it in the box and I could’ve put it on the shelf and then you would have never known who bought it?” I asked, not unreasonably.
“Because I wanted to see if it was just me or whether it would happen to someone else. I’m so sorry, I never thought it would happen again, I didn’t mean it to, I just wanted to keep track of it I guess. You’ve got to understand I wasn’t thinking straight, I’d buried my wife only three days before. I know it’s no excuse but….” He spread his palms. “What’s happened to you since?” I filled him in on my run of good luck, it was only as I catalogued the bad luck that had happened to Marlene and Shuggsy that I realised fully that he maybe wasn’t coming out with some bullshit scare story.
“It’s like karma I suppose,” he offered, “for all the good luck that happens there has to be an equal amount of bad luck in the world to balance it out.” I looked unconvinced. “Or that’s what Guy Mattinson said before he died.”
“He’s dead?”
“Yes, about two years ago. Look, have you got the internet here, I’ll show you.” I logged on and let the guy, who had introduced himself as Gareth by now, take over and navigate to a site called which was Mattinson’s own website, or at least had been. It hadn’t been updated since October 2002, and the home page showed a photo of Mattinson surrounded by a black border.
“OK, so I believe you, what happened to him?”
“He killed himself, but not before he’d shot his two sons as well.”

Word Count: 1,935

Tuesday, November 23, 2004

Day 22

It's kind of coming together, but I'm worried I haven't got enough plot to get to the end. I can always pad but I don't want to, but at least I'm still ahead, if only by 27 words!

I had vaguely suggested to mum that me and Shuggs would take her out somewhere the next day, but by the time she’d got ready, the weather had gone right off and she said she’d rather stay indoors in the warmth, in front of the racing on Channel Four. She’d developed a love of horse racing after she’d met da, probably because she thought he’d share his interest with her. He had taken her to a couple of meetings, back in the days before I’d arrived, once taking her to the three day Cheltenham Festival which she still remembered fondly through a sepia mind-set. I suppose I must have carried on the tradition by accompanying da to the bookies but I just didn’t get the same thrill as my parents did watching a load of midget Irishmen ride horses round a field. Having said that, we always made a point of sitting down and watching the Grand National together every year, even splashing out on a pound each way on a couple of our fancies. One thing mum wasn’t really into was the gambling side of racing, which to me was the only thing stopping the whole thing descending into farce. I mean, do the jockeys never just think mid-race, ‘what the fuck am I doing, here I am, a nearly grown man riding a horse for a living’ and just get off and walk away? Mind you, I could say the same thing about all professional sportsmen and women, it just didn’t seem right getting paid for doing sport, the concept is pretty alien to me. And, yeah I know, it’s not a real job, not like knocking out second hand books, or assembling butties for a living, maybe everyone’s job is a sham based on a very thin conceit and if we really thought about it, we’d all go off and live off the land or something. I know what da would’ve said about his job though, ‘it’s the most important job there is son, because it’s mine.’ He was full of bullshit homilies like that, probably how he justified his gambling, and more specifically the not telling mum part of it. I think she always suspected anyway, and that probably fed her fear of wagering more than a couple of quid every year. It’s why I hadn’t told her about my wins at the bookies and the casino anyway, at least that’s what I told myself to stop me thinking I was turning into my da.

I left mum in front of the TV, where she was quite happy picking her selections out of the Mirror and seeing how they got on without the pressure of money riding on them. What Marlene had said about me not getting help had spurred me into contacting Initial Care and seeing what they could do for me. First of all though, I googled them and found that they had a website which gave me some details about the kind of work they did. Normally, it was counseling people who had been through some kind of major personal trauma, resulting in close friends and family dying or actually being involved in an accident or some such disaster, but they did offer guidance and welfare on an individual basis, usually to organisations who had contracted them to provide their service to members of staff. I wasn’t sure I fitted into any of these categories, but I had nothing to lose I guessed. Then I rang and spoke to a very pleasant woman called Pat, who explained that my circumstances didn’t necessarily preclude me from speaking to a counsellor, even though I didn’t know da’s current whereabouts or career. She gave me the number of a person based in Manchester who would be happy to speak to me on a one-to-one basis, either in person or on the phone and we could take it from there. I thanked her and rang off, then went to make a brew before I made the next call. Obviously I wasn’t going to tell her about the Dream Police straight away, she’d probably ring the local asylum and have me checked in but I could at least give a bit of my history so she could decide if she wanted to be alone in a room with a possible nutcase.

I received two more phone calls that day, one good and one which rocked me right back, but the good one came first, not long after I’d spoken to the woman from Initial Care. It was from Astrid’s flatmate, Natalie, asking if I was free that week to come into the BBC studios in Manchester and record a piece for potential use on the pilot show of the DVD review show, which was to be called Viewers Commentary. The title seemed a little bit obscure to me, but I wasn’t arguing. She asked if I was free Thursday as she had three other people coming in to record auditions and it would be ideal if I could do one then as well. I mentioned that I worked during the day, but then decided that I would take the day off. Sod it, Grant could manage, literally for a change, without me for one day. The idea would be that I would talk about two favourite DVD’s, focussing particularly on the extras that came with the discs, or any other bonus material that wasn’t included in the cinematic release. Sounded right up my alley, my only problem would be narrowing my choice down to just two films, I already had ten in mind off the top of my head. I arranged to come in on Thursday afternoon and ask for Natalie, then decided to kill two birds with one stone and try to arrange a session with the Initial Care counsellor the same day. Luckily, she could fit me in and also didn’t want to know any of the gruesome details of my condition over the phone. We arranged to meet Thursday morning, giving me plenty of time to make some revisions to my audition piece before I pitched up at the BBC.

Whilst I was in a productive mood, I corralled Shuggsy into taking us to Morrisons and getting some provisions in for my Mexican spectacular that evening. He moaned about it for a while, but when I pointed out that I’d be doing all the cooking and all he had to do was sit on his arse and scoff it, he brightened and relented. On the way to the supermarket, I rang Astrid to check she was still OK to come round. She seemed to be a little distracted when rang, but then explained she’d been called into work to oversee some project that her boss had landed in her lap at the last minute. She assured me that she would be free by six at the latest and would get a cab over to the house. Now all I had to do was buy enough food and drink to satisfy five people and one shaved gorilla, who was currently driving me.

After we’d battled our way round the supermarket, I persuaded Shuggsy to take me round to the only decent gents clothing store in town that didn’t only sell whatever overpriced tat passed for fashion. My wardrobe was hopelessly limited and I needed something reasonable to wear on Thursday if I was going to myself justice, but I didn’t want to wear some clobber that looked as if I’d been painting in it, then rolled through an industrial mangle. Basically, I didn’t want to look like a student. Piper’s Clothing was an institution in town, having been in business since before the last World War. It had its share of old school tailors who liked to linger around the inside leg measurements with a little too much relish, but overall the staff were attentive without being overbearing, and they sold some good quality clothes at decent prices. Shuggsy didn’t fancy accompanying me however, he gets flustered in clothes shops for some reason, probably because he likes to shop in TK Maxx and buy a whole load of their outsize ranges in one fell swoop to save him going back more than twice a year. I left him to mooch around the precinct while I went into Pipers.

Half an hour later, I’d selected two casual but classy shirts, a pair of plain dark trousers that didn’t look like work pants and a new pair of shoes, the price coming in at under a hundred quid. One of the assistants took my purchases over to the cash desk and told me her name was Andrea, which I thought was a little strange, until the cash desk assistant told me she was called Karen, I realised then that it must be store policy. After I paid, Karen drew my attention to a box on the counter which announced that each customer who spent fifty pounds or more was entitled to enter a prize draw to win a thousand pounds worth of Piper’s vouchers. I remembered a quote from Be Lucky! and thought what the hell and filled in an entry form, which asked in addition to personal details, the names of the assistants who had served you. I surmised that it was some sort of commision type deal, maybe if I won Karen and Andrea would be on a percentage. I recalled the line from BL! as I filled in the form, I didn’t think that Guy With Dead Wife had highlighted it, but it seemed apposite;

* Lucky people create, notice and act upon the chance opportunities in their life. No opportunity, no matter how seemingly trivial should be passed up.

I stuck the entry form in the box, thanked Karen and went off to rescue Shuggsy from his shopping centre purgatory.

It was after nine o’clock and the food was on the verge of being beyond reheating without going past its best. My tortillas were going floppy and my guacamole was sweating in the heat of the kitchen, so I gave up and announced to everyone to dig in. Everyone at that time being Astrid, mum and Shuggsy. Of Maarten and Marlene there was no sign. The wine and beer had kept conversation going thankfully, Astrid seemed to be getting on well with Shuggs and mum had offered her ultimate seal of approval by intimating to me that she was a ‘nice girl’ whilst Astrid was on a toilet visit. I had only had one beer all night, but took the top off another one now and sat down to eat. I was pissed off with Marlene, not only because of delaying us eating but also because tonight was supposed to be a bridge building exercise with her, I had gone out of my way to be diplomatic and try to sketch over her departure. I’d even be civil to Maarten for one night if he could stop being an arse for once in his life. Now it appeared that she was going to deny me even that opportunity.

By the time we’d stuffed ourselves and I was thinking about getting some ice cream to slide down for afters and they still hadn’t arrived, I was both pissed off and worried in equal measures. Mum had mentioned their absence about fifty six times and I could see Astrid was getting a little uncomfortable so I decided to give them until I made coffee then I’d send Marlene a snotty text and be done with her. As it was the phone rang just as I was putting the coffee machine on. Shuggsy answered it and passed the phone on to me.
“It’s a policewoman asking for you George,” he said.
“Is that George Kelly?
“It’s PC Kirsten Douglas here, Mr Kelly. Do you know a Marlene Bradley?”
“Yes, I do,” My heart disappeared down to my shoes, and my mouth went dry.
“I’m afraid I have some bad news, Marlene has been in a car accident.” I slumped in a chair, afraid to ask.
“Is she, is she OK?” I stammered.
“Well, she’s comfortable but in intensive care and unconscious. The doctors are monitoring her.”
“Oh Jesus. How bad is she?”
“She’s sustained head injuries and has a broken arm and collar bone but it’s too early to say what else at the moment. She’s in the Infirmary at the moment.”
“Was there anyone else involved? I mean was there a bloke in the car as well?” I asked.
“Well that’s what we want to talk to you about as well, Mr Kelly, is there any chance you could come down to the police station? Nothing formal you understand, we need to find out more about Miss Bradley and who she was with.”
“What do you mean?”
“Well, I don’t want to say too much on the phone, but we believe Miss Bradley was the passenger and the driver ran from the scene before the police and ambulance turned up.” I agreed to come down to the station and rang off. As I put the phone down, I realised my hands were shaking and tears were welling up in my eyes.

Word count:2,207
Total word count: 36,701
% above target: 0.06%

Monday, November 22, 2004

Day 21

You've probably noticed that these comments have got shorter lately. That's because I'm posting later and later so I'm knackered by the time I post so I'm not up to waffling. So there!

The atmosphere in the house over the next week was tense to say the least. Mum went back to the home on Monday without saying much at all. I’d tried to explain but it seemed that she wasn’t really interested. She knew about Marlene and Maarten, but I had to explain about Astrid, something I didn’t really want to do at this stage in the relationship. I thought that might pique her interest, me meeting a girl at last, but she didn’t pass any comment apart from asking where I’d met her, which seemed insignificant in the great scheme of things. I didn’t even broach the subject of my ‘breakdown’, mum’s health was fragile enough without trying to introduce the nightmares, let alone attempting to explain what the hell the Dream Police were.

I barely saw Marlene for the rest of the week and didn’t bother asking what she was up to when I did. In all we probably exchanged less than a dozen words on the brief occasions we did meet, I really wanted to talk now but it appeared that she didn’t. To cap it all, it was Shuggsy’s court appearance on Friday and he was fretting. On the Thursday night, I came home from the Book Exchange, knackered and hungry and found him slumped in front of the TV, nursing what looked like a large measure of scotch, an open can of lager on the go by his side as well. I threw my jacket over a chair and wandered into the kitchen to see if there was anything edible left in the fridge. The room was in a tip, the sink full of pans floating in scummy water, half empty foil trays littering the table and next to no cutlery in the drawer. I walked back into the living room and had a go.
“Would it kill you to wash a pan or tidy up a bit in there?”
“I’ll get round to it,” Shuggsy waved a vague hand at me and took a large slug from his glass.
“Bloody hell, Shuggs, I’m sick of doing everything round here.” Might as well get hung for a sheep as a lamb, “and aren’t you in court tomorrow, don’t think it’ll look good if you look like a sack of shit, stinking of booze.”
“Ach, get off my case, you’re not me mam.” He switched off the TV and picked up the can of lager, knocking back the rest of the contents of the glass simultaneously. “I’m goin’ for a bath, I’ll do the pots when I come back.” With that he stomped off upstairs.
“Don’t worry yourself, I’ll do it myself,” I called after him. Bollocks, I thought and put my jacket back on and decided to go down to the Beehive and get Amanda to rustle us up a pint and a toastie. When Shuggsy was in a stressed mood, it was often best to leave him to his own devices, he usually came round by himself.

So it was a sorry looking trio who breakfasted together the next day. Marlene had been out with Maarten to God knows where till God knows what time, Shuggsy had hardly slept a wink by the look of it and I’d stayed in the Beehive until closing time and stopped many pints of bitter going off. None of us looked capable of breaking the silence, never mind saying anything constructive. We’d all taken the day off work, myself and Marlene to support Shuggs, who had taken leave and not told his boss what for, reasoning that it probably would be misconstrued, even though his boss was a bit of a jack-the-lad who had doubtless been in similar situations himself in the past. At least Shuggs looked the part, dressed in a shirt and tie for the first time that I could remember. He wasn’t eating, just sipping morosely at a mug of coffee, he must have been feeling bad if his appetite had gone. I was still in boxers and a t-shirt and Marlene was in a dressing gown, although at least she had showered already. Shuggsy’s appearance was scheduled for eleven thirty but we needed to be at court at least an hour before to see which room we were in, and for Shuggs to meet Pardew or whoever he’d delegated to represent the big man.

I finished my bowl of cereal then announced I was going for a shower myself, I couldn’t stand this, not knowing what to say, it was like we were three strangers thrown together by circumstance, not friends who had shared everything for the best part of twenty years. After I’d come out of the bathroom and was crossing the landing to my room, I could hear the other two chatting in low voices downstairs, I could have strained to hear what they were saying but I didn’t feel like hearing negative stuff about me, I felt bad enough as it was. God knows what Shuggsy was feeling.

What I didn’t expect when I eventually came down was Marlene standing in the hallway with two loaded suitcases and the front door open. She turned as I came down the stairs, looking a little sheepish and a lot like a vulnerable teenage girl suddenly.
“What’s happening?” I asked, not unreasonably.
“I, um, didn’t want a fuss, but I’m…” Marlene looked away, blinking back tears.
“You’re what?”
“I’m moving out for a while George.” She produced a tissue and blew her nose.
“But, where are you going, why now?”
“I’m moving in with Maarten for a bit, I just can’t stand being here, I’m sorry,” I stood there uselessly, too numb to speak. “Please don’t be cross, I just need to get away for a while.” At least she didn’t say anything about finding herself or me setting her free. Then she threw her arms round me and held me, pressing her face into my shoulder. But this time we were both crying. In the circumstances, it probably wasn’t the best time for Maarten to pull up outside the house in his twatmobile and honk the horn to announce his arrival. Marlene disengaged herself and kissed me on the cheek. Then she dried her eyes, picked up her suitcases and walked towards the door.
“I’ll ring you later, wish Shuggsy good luck from me. I’m sorry George.” Then she was gone, the door closing with an apologetic click. And all I could think of was that the lazy Dutch bastard couldn’t be arsed helping Marlene with her cases.

“Well, cheer up you bar-stards, we won didn’t we?”
Shuggs and me were sitting in the Beehive with a brace of pints in front of us. My cockney approximation of an impression of one of the characters in The Italian Job after they’ve pulled off the bullion raid was as a result of Shuggsy walking from court a free man. I’d been surprised at how quick it was all over, there was more waiting round than actual time in court. Pardew had told Shuggs that the prosecution weren’t going to contest because of the guilty plea. From where I sat in the public gallery there was more procedure than anything else. By the time I’d realised it, the judge had heard all the facts in the case and was ready to deliver his verdict.
“Mr Burns, it appears that you have admitted to being in possession of a stolen vehicle and have offered little, if any mitigating evidence for your actions on the night in question,” he said. How anyone could take his words seriously with that ridiculous syrup on his head was beyond me, but Shuggsy was listening to him like he was delivering the gospels. “However, in view of the fact that you have no previous record of transgression and are in permanent employ, then I believe that there is a vastly reduced chance of you committing a similar offence in future, and therefore handing down a custodial sentence would appear churlish. However, the law must still be seen to act as a deterrent, therefore I sentence you to three months imprisonment, suspended for twelve months, subject to your future good behaviour. You may stand down.”

“I bet your arse went when his Honour said three months imprisonment though big man, I know mine did.” I said, toasting Shuggs with my pint.
“Aye, I even thought they were going to take me away, until I realised that the guards were standing off me. I’d have smacked that lawyer if I had gone down. What were he about fifteen?”
“Yeah, we must be getting’ old, he didn’t look old enough to shave, never mind represent someone in court. He didn’t a fancy a pint though, maybe he weren’t old enough.”
“Nice of you to ask him though, maybe he had a hot date with a schoolgirl or summat.” We sank a few more pints, departing the pub before the karaoke started this time, I didn’t want to celebrate by making an arse of myself on stage again. Besides, mum was due home any time soon, and I needed to prepare myself to tell her that Marlene had left.

Mum didn’t seem that surprised by the news as it turned out, just disappointed. She seemed more weary than ever, and made some comment about me and Shuggsy being drunk when she came in. We had a ready meal each from M&S for supper, then me and Shuggs tackled the washing up whilst mum sat in the living room with a brew. When we’d done, I decided to ring Marlene, as she hadn’t rung yet to check on the result. It might seem like cheap point scoring to say that I wanted to ring before she did and highlight the fact that she hadn’t called, but I was feeling in that kind of mood at the time. At least she answered her mobile this time.
“Hello, it’s me,” there was a time when I would’ve sung that to her, but this didn’t seem like the right time. “Just thought you’d like to know that Shuggsy got off with a suspended sentence today.”
“Oh, yeah, sorry I haven’t rung, didn’t get a chance.” Too busy, eh? “How is he?”
“He’s fine, we went for a few pints to celebrate in the Beehive.” I almost said something about it not being the same without her being there but stopped myself. We made some awkward small talk about the trial and Shuggsy’s state of mind for a couple of minutes, then I asked her the question that I’d formulated whilst in the pub after pint number three.
“Look, do you fancy coming round tomorrow night, I’m making Mexican. Thought we’d have a few bottles of wine or whatever and have a chat, you can bring Maarten, seeing as we haven’t really met properly.” I paused, “Astrid’s coming round, thought I’d introduce her to mum.” Now it was Marlene’s turn to pause.
“Yeah, that’d be nice, I’ll see what he’s doing, but it should be OK, what time?”
“About seven thirty, obviously you can stay, I haven’t touched your room.”
“OK, I’ll ring you tomorrow to confirm, I’d better go now.”
“Alright, see you tomorrow hopefully.”
“Bye, Marlene.” I never thought that talking to her would be hard work. I know that nothing ever lasts forever, but I didn’t think this day would come.

Word Count: 1,903

Sunday, November 21, 2004

Day 20

Oh dear, I'm behind again, not massively but it's bugging me. I'm reasonably happy how the novel's going to end, but I don't know whether I've got enough plot to get there. Planning and a lot of writing to do tomorrow (Monday)

It didn’t really piss me off that Marlene had come back to our house with Maarten, or that he’d spent the night, or that he was helping himself to my Crunchie Nut Cornflakes on Sunday morning, or even that I had to introduce him to mum when she came into the kitchen because Marlene was in the shower, but I did get really offended when he slagged off Todd Rundgren.
“Ya, he ish the guy who did the guitar on Bat Out of Hell , thish is true?” he asked, reading the back of Something/Anything which had been lying on top of the kitchen stereo. At least I think he was asking, Dutch people have that annoying tendency to modulate upwards at the end of every sentence like Australians. But don’t get me started on Australians.
“Yeah, he did that, amongst other things,” I said.
“He hasn’t done much elshe though I think.” Take your face for a shit speech impediment boy. Honest to God, if he started whistling through his top teeth, I’d have to rearrange them. What the fuck did Marlene see in this helmet?
“No, only writing, playing all the instruments and singing on twenty odd other albums, pioneering rock videos and interactive CD’s and artist websites and producing some of the most influential bands of the last thirty years, but apart from that he’s sat on his arse, raking in the royalties from a Meat Loaf album, yeah.” I said, not even bothering to disguise the sarcasm.
“For sure, I’m not arguing with you my friend.” Kiss me hoop, friend?! “I am not too familiar with hish work that’sh all.” This time he did whistle, but I stifled a laugh and the punch. Mum was in the living room, reading the News of the World, I decided to join her, rather than waste my time arguing the toss in here. Anyway, Marlene was coming downstairs and I couldn’t handle her hanging off him while I was trying to enjoy my mug of tea.

Later that day, whilst mum was having a nap and Shuggsy was out at the Primrose playing for the darts team, Marlene came into the living room and draped herself on the settee. I was watching an old Fast Show on UK Gold. Thankfully Maarten had crawled back to wherever he oozed out from yesterday by now. Marlene managed to sit through Dave Angel, Suits You Tailors and Bob Fleming before she said anything.
“Are we still friends George?” Arse, here we go, the big talk. I killed the volume and turned to face her.
“Course we are, nothing’s changed for me.”
“It doesn’t seem like it that’s all, we’ve barely said two words to each other this week. Your mum’s noticed, she was asking me what had happened before.”
“Oh well, if mum’s noticed, then it’s official.”
“Don’t be so sarcastic, George, it doesn’t suit. We’ve been friends for too long, I can’t be doing with this.”
“Well, why do you think things have changed then? Could it be when you started sneaking your boyfriend around the house? Or maybe before that, you didn’t even tell me you were seeing him.” Marlene went into full on defensive mode now, arms crossed, eyes bright with indignation.
“I’m sneaking round?! What about you and this Astrid? I’m not stupid, and you didn’t tell me about her either!”
“I did, well I said that I’d met her at least.”
“Oh well then, silly me for not spotting the difference between meeting and going out on a date with her. When did you decide to stop telling me everything?”
“Come on, Marlene, it’s hardly not telling you everything just because I started seeing Astrid. I didn’t think you’d be bothered that’s all.” I was getting defensive myself now.
“What makes you think I’m bothered? It’s none of my business is it, just like me and Maarten’s none of yours.”
“I just don’t want to see you getting hurt that’s all. I don’t know how you can like someone who doesn’t like your favourite rock artist anyway.”
“Well does Astrid like everything you like? I don’t sit around just listening to music with him.” She was getting worked up now, if she was going to start telling me about their sex life, I was going to walk out.
“Look, you’re right, it is none of my business, and I don’t care if he comes back here with you, just be careful that’s all,” I said.
“And why would I need to take advice from you? You were on the verge of a breakdown the other night, and I had to hold you whilst you screamed or don’t you remember?” I didn’t really remember, but it seemed like splitting hairs to bring it up now. “And I bet you haven’t got help yet have you, or is that something else you’re keeping from me?”
“No I haven’t,” I said, feeling cruddy now.
“No, you haven’t, and you probably won’t either. You never do ask for help because you know best don’t you!” She was crying now but I didn’t stop her. “Just stay out of my life will you and I’ll not bother asking about yours!” And with that, she ran off upstairs, just as mum wheeled herself back into her room. I don’t know how long she’d been sitting listening to us.

Day 19

When I’d first ‘met’ Astrid at the Book Exchange, I’d thought she was a bit off-hand but then again, I didn’t come across many people in that job that were enthusiastic and amiable on a one-off meeting, either whilst purchasing or trying to flog me books. I reminded her of that meeting whilst we were waiting to order at the restaurant.
“I didn’t think much about you after, until I saw you again at the sandwich shop,” she said, honestly, “I did think you had nice eyes though.” Astrid gave me a shy smile. Now I really did want to kiss her. Pause.
“I’ll tell you something embarassing,” eye contact, lower voice, “I didn’t stop thinking about you all day, and I was hoping I’d see you again.” This really didn’t sound like me talking, I’d been so long without a relationship outside my circle of three that I didn’t usually reveal stuff like this so early after meeting someone. Astrid made me want to share everything, in the same way that I do, did, with Marlene. I just hoped I wasn’t being too forward and making her feel uncomfortable. Now it was her turn to pause and look at me, but she also reached over and took my hand.
“That’s so sweet.” Oh bollocks, this is usually the cue for a ‘but’, I thought, “no-one’s ever said that to me before, George.”
“Give over!” I blurted, “you must have had loads of blokes after you.”
“Not really.” Now she did look a little uncomfortable. “I found it hard to meet anyone here. At first my English is not so good, then it seemed like everyone I met was married, or married and not saying, or they were just, what do you say…..wankers!”
“Yeah that’s what I say alright,” I said, smiling, “I suppose in your job, you only get to meet people in false situations anyway, it must be difficult to get to know people properly.”
“Mm, it’s like people are not themselves you know? Like they are trying to impress you all the time. I don’t like this, I like honest people. You are an honest person I think?”
* Lucky people act quickly to take advantage of opportunity when others continue to sit and think of reasons why they should not. How many times have you thought back to a situation and said, "If only I would have"? The "lucky" person did it!

“Most of the time, I try to be. I think if you can be honest in as many situations as possible then you get it back .” And now I’m honestly in danger of telling you I’m in love with you. But then Mario the waiter scooted up to the table, pad in hand and broke the spell.

Later, I sipped my cappucino and waited for Astrid to return from a toilet trip. We’d covered a lot of conversational ground over the anti-pasta, the mains and dessert; our musical likes (Astrid – Hall & Oates, Crowded House, hovering dangerously close to Phil Collins territory), film (Astrid – Nora Ephron-style slushfests, but also modern French cinema, her favourite film was Amelie or as she impressed me by reciting, Le fabuleux destin d’Amelie Poullain, its original full title. We chatted about that for a while, I don’t normally enjoy films so ‘sweet’ but it had affected me somehow, Shuggsy thought I was soft in the head when I bought it on DVD, but then he thought Lost In Translation was ‘fuckin’ bollocks’ as well, the philistine. Anyway, I’d got quite vocal here and probably bored the poor girl with a list of my top twenty films of all time, only three of which she’d seen) and holiday destinations (Astrid – Sorrento and the Amalfi coast, unsurpringly, New York and Iceland. She was horrified that I didn’t own a passport. So am I really, well, not horrified exactly, just a little ashamed when the subject comes up.) When she came back from the toilet she was smiling and sat down, looking like she was dying to tell me something.
“I’ve just been talking to my flat-mate, Natalie.”
“She’s here?” I asked stupidly, with visions of being stalked or Astrid being chaperoned.
“No, silly! She’s at work, at the BBC in Manchester. I’ve told her about you and your interest in films.” She said interest, like she meant obsession, but in a nice way. “She’s working on a production of a new programme at the minute that’s going to be reviewing new DVD’s. But they want real people to do it, not like film critics or TV presenters. There will be a presenter at the start and in between the reviews but mostly it’ll be normal people. And she says they still want to have people come in to audition for the programme.” I must’ve pulled a face because she grabbed my hand again. “No, you have to do it, you’d be perfect! They want people who are passionate about films and know lots of different types, that’s the whole point of it. Anyway, you have to now, because I’ve told Natalie to ring you!”
“It’s not that I don’t think it’s a good idea, it’s just that I don’t think I’ll be good on TV, I come across like a nerd,” I said.
“Well, you might not be on, it’s just a test programme at the moment to see how it goes, a what do you call it, like a trial?”
“A pilot?”
“Yes, a pilot. Please George, for me, you’ll be great I promise.”
“OK then, but only if you go with me, I’m not great in situations like that, I’ll probably get there then change my mind and run away.”
“Of course I will, I’ll stand outside and make sure you can’t leave,” she said, “and I’ll make sure Natalie knows all about you before you go.”
“Do you think that’s a good idea, she’ll be put off before I even get there!”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I’ll only say good things,” she gave me that shy, downward eyes smile again, no not like Princess Di either. I felt my stomach go tight, and it wasn’t the pasta. “If I can’t say nice things about my boyfriend who can I?” Then she did lean across and kiss me and I went officially doolally.

* Lucky people believe 100% that they deserve everything they get.

I was starting to believe in Be Lucky! now, and that was going to be my downfall. But ask me if would care at that moment.

Word Count: 1,091

Saturday, November 20, 2004

Day 18

Got a bit behind again with being out Thursday and didn't get much done Friday with the result I'm about 1000 down. NaNoWriMo is a hard taskmistress!

I managed to tempt Shuggsy out for a pint on the Friday night, after mum had arrived and we’d had a bit of supper. Mum was complaining of feeling even more tired than usual and said she was going to have an early night. Marlene said she’d stay behind to look after her and said she was tired as well, after getting up early for work three days running. I didn’t make any comment about staying out or late nights with Maarten, but she knew I was thinking it. We were behaving civilly towards each other, she’d not mentioned our argument since but I’m sure that mum would have noticed the cool atmosphere which was a marked contrast to the normal easy-going chat that went on around the dinner table. So I think Shuggs was glad of the excuse to get out of the house for a couple of hours, I know I was.

The Beehive was busy, there was some promotion on for a new vodka alcopop, in addition to it being karaoke night, with the result that we struggled to find a table, settling in the end for a couple of chairs near the bog, which meant there was a steady stream of traffic weaving past as we tried to chat. The noise levels weren’t helped by two girls murdering Eternal Flame on the stage. After a bit of small talk, I braced myself and mentioned the upcoming court case. Shuggsy told me that Pardew had been optimistic about his chances of walking free, and had explained that the hearing would be in front of a judge, the clerk and the prosecution at the local magistrates court, which meant there would be no jury, unless the case was remanded to the Crown Court. Poor old Shuggsy was at his earnest best explaining this, anything official and he got all serious as he made sure he explained it all properly. He was fairly upbeat though, even though Pardew had advised him to plead guilty to being in possession of the stolen van, that was all they could pin on him with the ‘drugs’ being worthless. The money was being dealt with as a separate matter apparently, although Shuggs wasn’t too sure of the finer details. Basically it amounted to the cash being confiscated as ‘proceeds of crime’ or something and seeing as it had nothing to do with Shuggsy he wasn’t bothered. The order would be against his name and there was some business about it being more difficult for him to open a bank account in the future but as long as it didn’t mean him going to prison, he wasn’t arsed. Pardew had told him that by pleading guilty to being in possession of the stolen van he was looking at a suspended sentence, with a fine at worst and possibly community service, it being his first adult conviction. After he’d got through that lot (which took most of a pair of pints), I got a fresh round in and explained everything about my dealings with Ted Churchill and what he’d turned up. Again, Shuggsy seemed quite unconcerned and was positive about it. I had to make sure that he’d understood all the implications.
“But there’s nothing to say that I know, I mean knew him is there? If any questions get asked in the Primrose they’ll say nowt and anyway he drank in a few different boozers,” he said, taking the top two inches of his new pint.
“Aye, just bear in mind that Churchill has all the gen, but I didn’t give him your name. I reckon he’s alright bearing in mind I’ve paid him but you never know, he used to be a cop. I’m hoping that it never comes to it though.” I filled Shuggs in on the investigation into O’Neill’s murder, or at least the scant details I had gathered from the detective. Shuggs looked a little more worried at that but I assured him that it was very doubtful that anything else would come back to him and even if it did there was no evidence that tied Shuggsy in to Tony’s demise. We toasted that as two pissed up girls staggered past us on route to the toilet, all blonde hair and St Tropez tans. One of them made some comment, probably about Shuggsy’s bulk and they sniggered their way into the bogs.
“Shall we move nearer the bar mate?” I suggested.
“Aye, it’s doin’ me head in this.”
“Don’t fancy going back home yet, even if the entertainment in here’s not much better than back there.” The resident crooner launched into his version of ‘Mack the Knife,” it must be the law that every karaoke night must include a bloke who fancies himself as Sinatra belting out the standard.
“What do you reckon about Marlene and this Dutch feller then?” I asked, as we leaned against the bar, trying to gain Amanda’s attention.
“Dunno mate, he seems like a bit of a tool to me, God knows why she’s started with him all of a sudden.”
“I know, seems a bit of a weird thing to me, she always cracked on that he was a right dick, then all of us a sudden she’s round his house.” I shook my head, “You can’t legislate for taste mate.” Amanda spotted us and came over to take the order.
“Have you had a bit of a fall out or summat?” Shuggs asked.
“Not really, you know what she’s like, we just had a few words last night when she came in pissed or stoned. There’s no doing with her sometimes but she got really touchy which isn’t like her. I just hope she doesn’t get more serious with him.”
“Aye, you can’t say anything though can you.” I was just about to say something about Astrid, but then the karaoke organiser shouted my name up. Shuggsy had a daft smirk on his face.
“Go on son, your audience wants you!”
“Bastard,” I observed, he must have gone up when I was in the toilet last. He’d volunteered me to give a rendition of Otis Redding’s “Hard to Handle” which I was normally happy to give a go, but I didn’t feel drunk enough. Still, I gave it my best shot and I got a smattering of applause from the regulars. As long as I wasn’t an abject failure I didn’t care really I’d do anything for a laugh. It was one of the more incongruous aspects of my personality that I was quite shy but could get up on stage and entertain a pub mostly full of strangers. After that, I did my best attempt at getting the alcohol level in my blood up to a high rating which resulted in me and Shuggs doing a duet on the Small Faces’ Lazy Sunday with me taking the cockney bits, amused us anyway.

By the time we staggered home, the house was in darkness downstairs, and I half expected the chain to be on the door, precipitating a disastrous drunken attempt to break and enter. We fell in through the front door and I went to make a brew and some toast while Shuggsy clumped upstairs to relieve himself, something he hadn’t done all night. I swear the big man must have been a camel in a previous life or something, his capacity for food and drink was inhuman. I made the brews, brought them back into the living room, then went to check that mum was OK. Her bedroom door was closed and there was no light on so I didn’t go in, but as I moved back down the hallway I could have sworn that I heard a sound like a kitten mewling, followed by a sniff coming from behind the door. I stopped and listened hard again, but couldn’t hear anything further, but then Shuggsy came downstairs so I went back into the living room to join him.

I didn’t feel exactly right about sneaking out on Saturday evening to go and meet Astrid so I told mum that I’d been called in to do an extra shift at the Sub Stop because of illness. She didn’t make any comment but looked a bit drawn and said that she’d probably just read in her room. Marlene was going to the pictures, presumably with Maarten and Shuggsy was doing a foreigner in Lancaster, then was going out in Blackpool with his workmates so she would be alone. I probably should have cancelled the date, and I was torn for a while but it was too late to do it now as Astrid was at an event her firm was arranging and had her mobile switched off, so I couldn’t call her to cancel. I made sure that mum had everything she needed to hand so she wouldn’t have to wheel herself around and told her not to go reaching for anything.
“Don’t fuss so much George,” she said, “I’ll be fine, don’t be worrying.” She looked like she wanted to say something else, and I wondered if it was about Marlene. I’m sure that Marlene had said something about us and I knew that mum worried about us. I was just glad she didn’t know about Shuggsy. I hated not being open with her but sometimes it was better to protect her feelings. In the end, I just kissed her forehead and told her I’d be back by 10.30. When I smiled at her and left, she suddenly looked very old.

The bus was late and I ended up walking two stop’s distance in a light drizzle. I’d arranged to meet Astrid at the café bar round the corner from the trattoria. She’d liked it so much that she wanted to back and I was happy enough to oblige her. I was out of practice at dating and it was hard enough without coming up with different places to go. We arrived at the bar at almost the same time, me slightly after and we sat at a table near the window. I ordered a coke for myself, after last night at the Beehive I was feeling a bit strange and thought more alcohol would make me go strange. Astrid looked absolutely gorgeous and that was making me feel strange enough. She wasn’t wearing much make up but she seemed to have a glow about her, despite the cold weather. I had an overwhelming urge to cuddle her, but checked myself, that would probably almost definitely be strange, we weren’t at that stage quite yet.

Wednesday, November 17, 2004

Day 17

Feeling good about this now, it actually seems to be coming together, and on the way home in the car I had a few thoughts about the ending, all I need to do now is make sure I've got enough plot to get me there. I seem to be throwing all the ideas I've had for other books and still it's not enough. And I'm throwing anecdotes in left right and centre, God help me if I have to do this again.

And on that bombshell, I swallowed most of my pint. My mind raced as I went through the implications not only for Shuggsy, but also myself. It didn’t look good, for all intents and purposes, I was just some Joe Schmo who had come in off the street making a casual enquiry about someone who is now an ex-someone, on behalf of a ‘friend’ who had a reason to see the someone kept out of the picture, even if I had been extremely sketchy about the details of Shuggsy’s involvement with Tony, and certainly hadn’t mentioned any names. To be fair to Churchill though, he wasn’t being judgmental.
“Look, it’s not of my business what you wanted to find this bloke for, and as far as I can see you’re probably not responsible for what happened, but it doesn’t look good does it? I’ve made all my enquiries covertly and I found about the body being found through a mate who’s still on the murder squad, just in general conversation.” I mustn’t have looked convinced, so he continued, “between you, me and the gatepost, they’re not going to be wasting too many man-hours on this scrote, as far as they’re concerned it were drug related, probably revenge for him ripping someone off, and he had no known relatives or fixed abode. It were his ex-parole officer that id’d him, well what was left of him anyhow. Looked like a pro job apparently, one shot in t’back of his head.” Churchill seemed to be relishing revealing these details, I felt a bit queasy. Thankfully, he seemed to be winding up anyway as he was reaching for his jacket. He folded up the papers relating to his research and slid them back into the envelope.
“Under t’circumstances, I reckon it’s best that I hold onto these for safe keeping.” He passed me another single sheet of paper, folded over, which looked like it was typewritten. “That’s the invoice for the work, all in. Get it to us within fourteen days will you, cheque or cash.” With that, he drained the dregs of his pint and made for the exit. Somehow, he’d made that last sentence sound like a polite request and a veiled threat, all in one. I guess there wasn’t anything to tie him to me if anyone asked why he was interested in the late Anthony O’Neill, as long as he destroyed the paperwork. I turned over the invoice which came to just over eight hundred pounds, the breakdown simply showed ‘miscellaneous investigations undertaken’ and he’d only claimed sixty quid expenses, so it seemed churlish to quibble about the time it took, if as Churchill had said, it only took a few phone calls. I was going to make damn sure I paid in full by the end of that week, or else he might have been tempted to have another word with his ex-colleagues. As it stood, I was going to have to have a serious chat with Shuggsy and I wasn’t sure of the outcome. Whatever, we needed to come up with a contingency plan before his court appearance. I realised then that he was due to have met Pardew that evening to discuss his case. I dug out my mobile, intending on ringing Shuggs straight away to see what had transpired, but then Grant walked in the pub and immediately homed in on me.

“So what you should be looking at with every move is to be trading up. So, you start off in your two up two down terrace in Shit Street, then you move up to a cottage-style effort in a terrace or a semi in Bloggs Road, then you want to be looking at a close or better still Wotsit Avenue. Then when you’ve got your two point two kids out of the house, wallop, you graduate to your gated estate or somewhere that’s called ‘The’ something or other, and you’re rubbing shoulders with footballers and actors, your monied class anyway.” Yes, that was Grant holding forth on another of his inexhaustible topics of how to make a fortune, it hadn’t taken him long, halfway down his first pint of Hoegaarden in fact, “you can really taste the hops!” Twat. Thankfully, but not for him, Sean had turned up not long after Grant had landed, so I didn’t have to face the barrage of banality by myself, but it hardly deflected the flow of bullshit spewing from Grant’s mouth. It wouldn’t have been so bad but Grant lived in a modest house in one of the best areas of town and had hinted to me on more than once occasion that he was struggling to make the mortgage payments, after he’d tried to probe me for details of my financial arrangements. Usually, and I say usually like we make a habit of this kind of Book Exchange employer and employee get-togethers (this was only the third), we put up with this sort of chat for about an hour until Sean and I rendezvous at the bar or in the bogs and hatch a plan to get out of the way. Obligingly, Grant had already hinted that he was using this evening’s drinking session as an alibi for meeting his mistress. Hopefully, after a few pints and enough blank looks from us two, his libido would get the better of him and he would, er, shoot off. Yes, Grant was, amazingly, married, and perhaps more remarkably, was stringing another woman along as well. And if the polaroid (yes, I know) that he’d once flashed us was a good likeness, she was a bit of a stunner as well. His lover, not his wife. His poor spouse always looked as though she was on the verge of tears on the few occasions that she had come in the shop, and to be honest, she was a bit plain, says George Clooney here. His mistress was apparently an air stewardess who he had met when he was coming back from a buying trip to the Frankfurt Book Fair. All I can say is, she must have a high setting on her bullshit meter to have been impressed by Grant’s patter. Either that or he had an enormously distended penis, but even Grant wouldn’t have lopped that out on an aeroplane.
Whatever his plans for the evening though, they did seem to include plenty of alcohol, which in Grant’s case probably wasn’t a good idea, as he couldn’t hold his ale and if he planned on going for a horizontal jog, he was hardly going to get out of his starting blocks before collapsing. Sean made some comment about the optics which led Grant into telling us a story which I reckon is apocryphal, but he swears is true, about the time he’d been with Candida (the mistress) all night when he’d told his wife he was playing snooker with the lads. She should have seen through that one straight away, Grant hasn’t got any mates. Anyway, he’d come back to the house about two in the morning, spent and sober, then realised he was supposed to have been boozing with the boys. So, he raided the drinks cabinet, grabbed a bottle of the first thing that came to hand, which was brandy, then proceeded to take a slug. He hadn’t heard his wife coming down the stairs and when she opened the living room door, Grant was still mid-slug. She’d apparently taken one disgusted look at him guzzling the Remy Martin and said “you’ve got a problem,” and stomped off back to bed. Grant finished the tale with a leer and said “I had to kip in the spare room, but it were worth it,” then lurched off towards the bar. I exchanged a rolling eyes glance with Sean and looked at my watch, only half eight, another couple of Hoegaardens and we’d be rolling Grant out of there.

As it was, it took another three and then we poured an overwrought Grant into a taxi and left him to his own devices. I walked with Sean as far as the railway station where he went to catch his train to the suburbs and I headed for a bus. I could have asked Shuggsy to come and pick me up I guess so I could break the news to him about Tony on the way home, but I wanted to do it over a pint at the Beehive, and also I didn’t want to leave Marlene out again. Something told me she knew that Astrid and me were becoming more than casual acquaintances and I’m sure I’d heard her listening when I was on the phone to her the other night. I was already wondering how I was going to say that I was meeting Astrid on Saturday night when that was usually film night with mum but I’d have to cross that bridge a bit nearer the time.

When I got home, Shuggsy wasn’t in but Marlene was and she was behaving a bit strangely. It didn’t take long before I realised she was high. I didn’t say anything, I was already aware of acting like a mother hen. So I just left her munching her way through a tube of Pringles (paprika flavour) and a family pack of kit-kats and went in my room to listen to Peel, the English version. I was nodding my head to an old Super Furry’s track when Marlene knocked on the door and came in. She flopped down on the bed next to me and started stroking my hair, something I found mildly disconcerting for some reason.
“You alright?” I asked.
“Mm,” she said absent-mindedly.
“Good night?”
“Yeah, good actually mm.” Jesus, and?
“Where did you get to?”
“Oh, just went to a friend’s house for something to eat and had a few drinks.” And a few tokes by the look of it.
“Anyone I know?”
“Don’t know if you do, they work with me.” Wuh wuh wuh!! She’s playing the pronoun game. I hardly dared ask. I sat up and looked at her.
“Who’s ‘they’?”
“Er, Maarten.”
“Oh my God, not Dutch Martin with two A’s!”
“Yeah, why?”
“Maarten ‘I went for a few beersh wit my colleaguesh and got sho drunk, it was crayshy’,” I said, in an approximate imitation of his accent.
“Stop it,” she said, hitting me with a pillow but in a playful manner.
“Maarten, ‘you can shtay at my house, ish no problem? Maarten ‘you like to shmoke da good shit?’”
“No, really stop it now.” She was suddenly up to intense Defcon one level.
“But you always said he was a prat. In fact you told me he would be in your bottom five of blokes at your work.”
“Yeah but I didn’t really know him properly, he works in IT.”
“Jesus, it gets better, a techie nerd.”
“Takes one to know one.”
“You took the words out of my mouth,” I said, then regretted it.
“You know what George, you can be a real self-centred git sometimes, you’re not my dad.”
“I know, I’m sorry, I just don’t want you to get hurt that’s all. I’m pleased for you.”
“Oh, well that’s great, I’ve got the George Kelly seal of approval.” She was getting into a strop now, I could tell. Like I said, I’ve got an intuition for that kind of thing. “Maybe I could give you and Astrid the seal as well, then we can just get on.” Oh, shit.
“How did you know?”
“Shuggsy told me, at least someone still confides in me in this house.” She slid off the bed and was making to leave. I grabbed her arm and spun her round.
“Look, Marlene, I’m not saying who you should and shouldn’t see, I just want you to be careful that’s all.”
“Stop patronising me, I’m not some little girl anymore, I’m so bored with your big brother routine! Just do whatever you want and I won’t ask you anything, but do me a favour and don’t tell me what to do!” And with that she wriggled free and ran out of my room. I slumped back on the bed and wondered if this was the beginning of the end of our friendship as we knew it.

Word Count: 2,051
Total Word Count: 28,840
% over target: 1.77%
Words to go: 21,160
Word of the day: overwrought

Tuesday, November 16, 2004

Day 16

It's a cliche but that's cos it's true, but it's so much easier to write about what you know. Flew through today's target and am now over halfway and ahead of schedule for the first time in five days. Get in!

I came bouncing down to breakfast the next morning full of the joys to catch Shuggsy polishing off the rump end of his breakfast, quite literally, it looked as if he’d consumed half a pig with his ration of Branston pickle.
“Alright George, good drink last night?” he said, through a mouthful of bread.
“Not bad, Shuggs, just the six pints.”
“Average, I stopped a few going bad an’all. No sign of Tony at the Primrose though.”
“What do you reckon you’d do if you saw him again though?” I ventured, trying to form an impression of what to do with the information Churchill was going to give me.
“Apart from pound the living keek out of him you mean?” Shuggsy said, “Dunno really, probably report him to the cops or summat.”
“Aye, but it could make things worse if he grasses you up and says you had more to do with it than you actually did. He sounds like a right snake who’d shaft his own mother if it’d save his skin.”
“Yeah, s’pose you’re right, Mr Pardew is coming up with the defence and he must know best, I’ll find out tomorrow when I go and see him.”
“Do you want me to come with you?” I asked.
“Nah, you’re alright, you’ve done enough, I’ll have to take some notes, I’m shittin’ meself about being in court as it is.”
“Yeah, but he’s going to coach you isn’t he, just make sure you stick to whatever he tells you, I reckon you’ll be fine.”
“Aye cheers, it’ll pure set my mind at rest when I’m back out on the street anyway, we’ll deffo go for a few bevs that night.” Shuggsy hoisted his daysack over his shoulder, “anyway I’d better shoot, we’re working over near Sheffield today and tomorrow, be back about seven anyway.”
“Have a good one,” I said, as he shambled out through the door. I stuck the radio on and whistled some inane tune, even though the radio was programmed to Radio 4 for some reason. Today was just finishing and I half-listened to the news while I pulled some breakfast together. I was just stirring my brew when a programme started that made me listen with renewed interest. Initially it seemed like it was another of those documentaries where they follow a psychologist as he deals with some pressurised situation but it was more about the work of a counselling service that offered it’s services to members of the uniformed services and their families. The presenter talked to the teenage son of a policeman who had been having trouble at school and at home, and who said he’d been having disturbing dreams. Eventually he’d sought the help of the organisation, who were called ‘Initial Care’, through his dad and they’d arranged for him to have professional counselling which was provided by the same people who looked after victims of accidents, shootings, murders and such like. The parallels between my situation and the boy featured in the programme were striking and I made a note of the contact details given out at the end of the feature. Whether I would qualify with da not being around, even supposing he was still alive and a serving fireman was another question, but there was no harm in making an enquiry. I went back up the stairs to collect my coat and say goodbye to Marlene but after I shouted up to the attic from outside the bathroom I realised she must have already left for work. It wasn’t like her to either leave so early or not say goodbye to me but I just reasoned that she had left even before Shuggsy had surfaced and didn’t want to disturb me. I made a mental note to ring her later in the day or else I wouldn’t see her until the next morning as I was at Sub Stop that night and Marlene had her Creative Writing evening class. It wasn’t much of a sign but maybe I should have taken more notice at the time, the thought of going more than two days without seeing or at least speaking to her was unthinkable. Unthinkable, but as it turned out, a presage of what was to come.
As it turned out, I didn’t get a chance to ring Marlene that day, the Book Exchange was inexplicably busy and Grant sent me off to collect a consignment of proofs from ‘his publishing connection’, another first, normally he wouldn’t have trusted such a high-level task to a minion, but he was busy with some other deal and even paid for me to collect the books by taxi. I suspected he was drunk. Anyway, the result was that I didn’t get back to the Exchange until nearly closing time and then I had to rush to get round to the Sub Stop in time for my shift, all of which had the consequence that I didn’t contact Marlene. To be fair, she didn’t ring me either, but two wrongs and all that. When I reached home around ten thirty, Shuggsy was up watching a repeat of X-Files on BBC and Marlene wasn’t back from evening class. I made a brew for us and slumped in front of the box as Scully went to investigate another weird episode by herself, the daft mare.
“Heard from Marlene tonight Shuggs?” I asked.
“Yeah, she rang about nine to say she was going for a drink with some of the lot from her class.”
“Right. She seem OK?”
“Yeah, same as ever, you know?” Shuggsy was a fair barometer of people’s moods, if something had been wrong I’m sure he’d have said something. As it was he groaned as Scully crumpled to the floor after being attacked by something which slithered out of the wall. We watched the rest of the episode together, then Shuggsy called it a night. I stayed up until after midnight, but she didn’t return home. I even texted her a couple of times to no avail. I didn’t want to seem like my mum then by sitting in the near dark until she fell in, so I took myself off to bed.

I tapped on Marlene’s room door in the morning, not long after I got up, then, when there was no reply, I carefully opened the door. The room was open, and her bed obviously hadn’t been slept in. What the hell, I thought, she’s a grown woman, not my little sis, but I couldn’t help a feeling of unease creeping across my mind. I wound up leaving for work early as I couldn’t be doing with the house being so quiet, Shuggsy having left for south Yorkshire at the crack of dawn, in order to be back in time for his appointment with Pardew. I’d even put Todd’s Hermit of Mink Hollow on the stereo for a quick blast, our second favourite Rundgren album after Something/Anything, as if the sound of Can We Still Be Friends would summon her. I rang her mobile but it skipped to voicemail. Now I was seriously getting freaked out, Marlene was never out of contact for so long and all sorts of scenarios were running through my head. The morning dragged at the Exchange, we actually had no customers at all for the first three hours. Normally, I don’t mind, I just kick back with a book and something tasty on the shop CD player, but I was restless and worried about Marlene and couldn’t concentrate. Even Grant noticed and he wouldn’t normally comment on my behaviour unless I was dancing naked round the Sports section, torching the display as I went. Even so, he just made a glib comment about ‘getting larruped at the pub tonight’. I simply grunted and went back to fretting behind the counter. Then at thirteen minutes and twenty two seconds past twelve, she rang my mobile.
“Hi George,” she said calmly. Don’t ask her where she’s been, don’t ask her where she’s been.
“God, Marlene, I’ve been worrying here, where’ve you been?” Shit.
“Erm, out, I stayed with a friend.” Right.
“Oh, alright, didn’t you get my texts?”
“Yeah, but not till this morning, it was a bad reception area, and I switched it off when I went to bed.” Alone?
“OK, doesn’t matter, just wondered if you were alright that’s all.” I said, trying not to sound judgmental.
“I know, you’re so sweet,” Marlene said. She sounded different somehow, but I couldn't put my finger on exactly why. I told her about my plans for the night, expressly leaving out my meet with Ted Churchill and told her I’d be home about eleven-ish, hopefully earlier. She sounded a bit distracted, and before I rang off, I could have sworn I heard laughter, male laughter, in the background. Oh, bollocks.

Ted Churchill seemed even more fat and sweaty out of his natural environment, although whether this was more like his accustomed surroundings was open to debate. Anyway, he accepted my offer of a fresh pint with a grunt. After I’d presented him with the beer, and he’d taken a hefty draught out of it, he reached into the inner pocket of his battered leather jacket and took out a rolled up manila envelope, then slid out his readers from a shirt pocket. He jerked out a sheath of papers from within the envelope and peered over his glasses, before sorting them into an order he was happy with.
“First off,” he said, taking a fresh pull on his pint, “your man’s full name is Anthony O’Neill, alias Irish Tony, or Tony O’No according to whose company he’s in at the time. Born third of May nineteen sixty two, in Willesden Green, North London to an Irish mother and English father. Various dead-end jobs since school, mostly labouring, the odd bit of building work, most of it undeclared. Got married young, in eighty one, couple of kiddies then did a runner to the continent. Turns up in Manchester about six years after, bit of trouble with the law, minor stuff mainly, then one biggy for aggravated burglary and carrying an offensive weapon. Did four years at Her Majesty’s pleasure for that one. No fixed abode since release, but info puts him at various addresses round here. No convictions until last year when it gets a bit more interesting.” He polished off the rest of the pint with relish, replacing it with a motion that I understood to mean he required a replacement. I took the empty pot to the bar with impatience, I’d barely touched my own bitter. I brought a full pint back, which Churchill took another slurp out of before finally revealing his tasty tidbit.
“Right, when he was allegedly out and about meeting your mate, O’Neill was supposedly serving a six year stretch for Possession of Class B drugs with Intent to Supply same.” Bugger me.
“But, how’s that?” I asked.
“Search me, my source is pretty good, but these records sometimes get cocked up. Could be that it’s not the same bloke out and about who’s down on record as convicted, or he was out on licence.” I must have looked quizzical, as he explained, “means he’d been released with conditions, should have had a parole officer who he’s supposed to report to and other restrictions. Or it could mean something else.” His enigmatic act was getting on my tits by now, I was damned if I was buying him another pint with what I’d already laid out to get this far.
“Like?” I prompted.
“Like, he’s got someone else to do his bird for him.” I raised an eyebrow. “Happens. Or he’s done a runner from the nick.”
“What do you reckon then?”
“My money would be on the runner, if he’s more than halfway through his sentence he could have been downgraded to a lower category prison, it’s easier to do one from there.”
“How easy is it to find out if he has done a runner?” I asked.
“Not that hard,” Churchill mused, obviously totting up the tarrif in his head, “a few phone calls, bit of legwork. Dunno if it’s worth it though.”
“How do you mean?”
“He were found dead a week last Tuesday, face down in t’river at t’back of Jackson’s Reach.”

Word Count: 2,075
Total Word Count: 26,822
Words to go: 23,178
% over target: 0.56%
Word of the Day: rump

Monday, November 15, 2004

Day 15

Almost there, managed to get a plan together today, but didn't get round to writing until 4 cos I was looking after Harry, amazing how time gets away from you. Halfway thru the month and I'm almost halfway there...

Things started going awry not long after I got back from lunch, pasta salad since you didn’t ask. I never touch sandwiches any more for the obvious reason. Grant was fannying about in the store room again when I got back in and Sean gave me a raised eyebrow as a warning. I could hear muffled curses and then a sliding noise, followed by a bang and another oath, hopefully it meant Grant had been buried alive under a pile of heavy encyclopedias. I didn’t rush to help anyway, as my mobile buzzed to life. It was the morose Ted Churchill asking if we could put our meeting off until Thursday evening as ‘a job had come up’. He apologised in an off-hand way, a routine I supposed that all ex-career cops had perfected when dealing with members of the public. He clearly hadn’t been on a customer service course since retiring anyway. I confirmed our new meeting time, then Grant emerged from the store room, brushing dust from his Hackett sweatshirt and carrying a pile of what looked like cookery books, which he slapped down on top of Sean’s graphic novels (Misc M-Z). Sean whimpered slightly but admirably held himself in check and didn’t rush over to move the cookery books. Grant had a plan for us anyway.
“Cancel whatever you’re doing Thursday night boys, Grant’s taking the team out on the piss!”
“I’m meeting someone at 6 in the Crown, so…” I began.
“S’alright feller, we’ll wait on you, the Crown’s not a bad start off place, me and Sean’ll sink a couple of cheeky ones over a game of pool or something.” Sean looked crestfallen at this turn of events.
“Thing is though, I don’t know how long it’s going to go on,” I said.
“Hang on a minute you’re not meeting that fine young filly that was in here last week are you?” Grant was almost dancing on the spot, “She was called Astra or something, you dark horse Georgie boy!” Yeah, I know he is definitely the kind of tosser that would still call a woman a filly.
“No, and she’s called Astrid.”
“Well, whatever, you toddle off to your meeting and give me a toot on the mobie when you’re done.” With that he bade us a ‘fond farewell’ and fucked off with the Jamies and Nigellas out to his Punto.
“What do you reckon’s brought that on eh?” Sean asked. I shrugged.
“Probably wants to tell us he’s turning the shop into a rest home for pale young boys and we’re no longer needed.” Sean started to reshuffle the comics Grant had flattened with the cookery books. I stifled an urge to beat him round the head with a copy of Sandman, and tell him to stop being so anal, but stopped myself, Sean was a good kid, if a little too reserved for his own good. He reminded me of myself at that age, which was a good thing, I needed a marker to show me how far I’d come on, even if it wasn’t that far down the road.

A better marker was that I was actually going on a real live date with a real live girl, something I hadn’t done for some years, seven to be precise. I’d almost forgotten what I was supposed to do. The phone call setting it up had gone better than I’d hoped, Astrid had been willing to meet me for a start and hadn’t suddenly realised that her visa had run out and she had to return to whatever Mediterranean country she came from in a hurry. I showered and shaved, then spent an agonising hour choosing what to wear. My vague plan for the evening, such as it was, was to go for a couple of drinks then take her to the Italian restaurant that Shuggsy, Marlene and myself very occasionally frequented. I’d almost considered asking Marlene to get me membership to the casino, but had rejected on the ground that it was a bit wanky for a first date and besides, I hadn’t told Marlene I was going on a date. I felt a bit shitty about that to be honest, I normally told Marlene everything that was going on in my life, she was the only one who knew about the Dream Police, but after her reaction when I’d told her about meeting Astrid, I decided to hold back. There would be a right time to tell her, but this wasn’t it. I’d told her that I was going out but that it was with Sean, which meant that I couldn’t make too much effort for fear of raising her suspicions. I eventually settled for a pair of black jeans, and a smart-ish but casual red shirt. I did however decide to add a pair of my late grandad’s black cufflinks for a touch of panache. I slung my black jacket on to cover them up for now though and called to Marlene that I was off out. Shuggsy was out at the Primrose, I hoped he wasn’t celebrating his let-off from his drugs caution by getting himself in a fresh scrape, but sod it, he was a big enough lad and he could look after himself. Surely he wasn’t daft enough to get bitten twice?

Just before I departed, I re-read the section in Be Lucky! about luck when interacting with other people;

Lucky people expect their interactions with others to be lucky and successful……. after someone has finished speaking to you, you should pause three seconds before replying, while looking into their eyes. This shows you have focused upon hearing and understanding them. Don't be thinking about what you are going to say in reply, just concentrate on listening.

It sounded like common-sense to me anyway, but I was going to try it and see how far it got me. I left the house in a good mood.

Astrid was late, but not checking the door every five minutes and getting paranoid late, she apologised anyway and kissed me on the cheek, the first kiss I’d had in years that wasn’t from a close relative or Marlene I was ashamed to recall, course I didn’t tell her that, I was trying to project the air of a confident bloke who did this sort of thing every week, just not with different women, not that she would make that mistake if we spent any kind of time together. I got her a drink, a white wine and lemonade, and a bottle of lager for myself. I don’t normally drink lager, and certainly not in bottles, but I’d decided it was better to pace myself, I have a tendency to blurt stuff out without thinking when I’m on the wrong side of a few pints. I needn’t have worried anyway, Astrid was very easy going and relaxed and I wondered idly if she was lucky. Mattinson had put forward the theory that ‘lucky people have a relaxed attitude towards life.’ I certainly wasn’t about to ask her such a daft question early on anyway, I still wasn’t absolutely convinced of the book’s veracity, even if my life had changed for the better since taking possession of it. It turned out that she was from Italy, Castel di Sangro to be exact, a small town in the Abruzzi region in the south of Italy whose chief claim to fame it appeared was that their football team had risen to the heights of the second division of Italian football during the early nineties but had disappeared back into obscurity through a combination of fraud, mismanagement and it’s star striker being shot. The story had been written up by an American journalist and had become a best selling book.
I didn’t have a clue about it, and very little interest but I made sure I listened intently, interjecting where appropriate. I was quietly impressed anyway, no-one had bothered to write a book about my town, at least not that I knew of, we’d never sold one at the Book Exchange anyway. Besides Astrid was obviously very proud of her birthplace and I could have listened to her reciting the town’s phone book if it came to it, if it meant I could watch her gorgeous face all night. She had come to England to study five years previously and had found a job whilst in college at a PR firm in Manchester, but had decided to live here because it was more ‘how do you say it, ruralous.’ I could have kissed her myself then, I’m trying not to sound patronising either. I told her a bit about my life to date, trying to appear less of a geek than I was, and had been, and sketching over the lack of female companionship bit. I told her about mum, most of it, da, not much of it and concentrated on a few anecdotes about Shuggsy that made everyone laugh, including the one where he’d cycled to the newsagents, bought a paper and a scratchcard, won fifty quid on the scratchcard, then come outside to find his bike had been nicked and had to pay hundred pounds for a new one. By this time, I’d had three bottles of fizzy Continental hops and water and my stomach was growling at me, so I suggested moving onto the restaurant.

Armed with the hindsight of knowing she was from Italy, I probably wouldn’t have booked a table at the trattoria. It wasn’t that the food was rubbish, it was just a bit cheesy, with the formica tables, the check tablecloths and the bottles of Chianti encrusted in candle wax. Again I shouldn’t have worried, Astrid was made up with it, and was amazed she’d never been here before. She had the waiters wrapped round her little finger in no time, ordering in Italian and making little comments to the manager, who hovered around our table like a mayfly, which made his night. Again, Astrid did most of the talking but I didn’t have to keep up the pretence of being intent on listening (not that I had anyway) as I was determined to make the most of tonight. My pessimistic alter ego told me that this would be our one and only date when she found out what I was about, so I should store it all away for use during the next seven dateless years. Don’t think Guy Mattinson would have been impressed with that attitude.

When I paid the bill, (yeah I know, God knows if it’s chauvinistic to insist on paying the bill on a first date, but what the hell) I was amazed to see it was eleven thirty. Outside, I visualised a taxi coming round the corner, and amazingly there was one. We shared the cab to her house, she thanked me for a great night, and looked like she meant it. Then she kissed me, missing my cheek, whether on purpose of not I couldn’t tell, but couldn’t have cared less, and planted her lips on mine. Then she jumped out, leaving me with, well let’s not beat about the bush, an erection. Come on, it’d take a stronger man than me not to. You’ve got to admire my honesty anyway. I took the cab home and went up to my room and decided to treat myself with…..a cup of coffee and another viewing of Dark Star on DVD. Hey, once a nerd always a nerd right?

Word Count: 1,925
Total Word Count: 24,747
% under target: 1.03%
Words to go: 25,253
Word of the day: Panache