Tuesday, December 21, 2004

The Full Manuscript!

Thought I'd publish the whole thing in order for ease of reading, so here it is! Hope you enjoy it, if you do please tell me...

Geek, Specky-four-eyes, double-glazing face, four-eyes, four-eyed fuck, four-eyed fuck-face, Spotty Muldoon, Paddy-pisses-in-his-pants, Smelly Kelly, horse, gorging George, gorgeous George (I knew they were taking the piss with that one). Just a selection of the noms-de-plume I have endured since early childhood. And that was before my parents would let me go to school. Ho ho. No, of course all these nicknames were bestowed on me by my peers, a few of whom I even called friends in an attempt to be like “the others”. Eventually, I decided that “the others” were a set of bastards who weren’t worth bothering with and decided to stick with just the two friends. Saves on money at Christmas and birthdays anyway. Let’s have it right, I am what would, under any normal criteria applied by society, be called a nerd.
Slightly above-average IQ? Check. Unfashionable haircut? Check. Sometime spectacles-wearer? Check. Rather more than passing interest in sci-fi and fantasy novels which are part of a trilogy? Check. No discernable interest in fashion? Check. Retreats into an imaginary world and spends more time than strictly necessary worrying about intangible forces of evil and arcane defence mechanisms? Er, well, let’s not get into that one just yet. This isn’t Harry fucking Potter.
Let’s deal with the name first; George Graham Kelly. Given to me by my da, an Irish émigré for whom his beloved Arsenal winning the league and cup double and the birth of his only son happened to coincide within hours of each other. For anyone without a Rothmans (the football yearbook, rather than the fag) to hand my names are apparently the scorers of Arsenal’s goals in the Cup Final. Ah, but Arsenal only scored two goals, the more pedantic amongst you might contest. Well, strictly speaking, yes. The first goal was (allegedly) disputed by both George Graham and Eddie Kelly, but my da reasoned that, as his surname was Kelly, if he put the second goal scorer, Charlie George, first, then gave me the middle name for his favourite player, George Graham, then all bases were covered.
This story formed the basis of many a performance at family gatherings when I was forced to recount the entire cup-winning Arsenal team including unused substitutes, then re-enact Charlie George’s goal celebration where he flops on his back, arms raised in weary salute. This scarred my early childhood until I was old enough to work out that I could get the names wrong and exasperate my da enough so he would stop asking. I’ve hated football ever since. And I’m not that keen on my name either.
Not that Da hung around long after I stopped caring about his Arsenal. As far as I know he stopped caring about Arsenal not long after as well. At least he didn’t feel the need to knock out a tedious memoir about the angst of supporting Arsenal and make a fortune out of it in the process. Not that Da wasn’t capable of writing a book, far from it, he certainly didn’t conform to the stereotype of the ‘tick Paddy’ over on the ferry to tarmac your drive in the middle of the night or drink Guinness till he puked then mount a collection for the cause to the strains of the Wolftones on the jukebox. Da was an intelligent fella who would rather discuss the day’s news or last night’s match over a coffee after his shift. Da was a fireman, probably still is somewhere, but as my mother would never tire of saying ‘he never put out the fire in my heart.’ Even though he pissed off for God knows where fifteen years ago. She still talks about him as if he’d popped down the shops for a loaf. I think it’s fair to say I was a bit of a disappointment to him. He had high hopes for me following him into ‘the job’, arranging visits to the depot after-hours where his mates would pretend not to be swearing, misogynistic arseholes for the hours I was there in an attempt to impress me. I even put out a few fires myself, albeit in an oil drum in a controlled environment, but I never got that excited about sliding down the pole or wearing a shiny helmet or riding a big red beast through the town at a hundred miles an hour or any number of other single entendre distractions which Da’s boys seemed to find endlessly amusing.
The funny thing is that I still kind of miss him even now. He was always a presence, even though he was a pain in the arse throughout most of my adolescence. And he could be incredibly generous, like the time he took myself and my mates to Scotland and we spent two weeks travelling all over and never had to find a penny to pay anywhere. Actually, looking back it was funny that he seemed to know all the hoteliers personally and seemed slightly furtive when he paid for meals and never seemed to hand over any cash at any point but what the hell. Shugsy (that’s my one male mate, I’ll come to him in a minute) idolised Da and was more upset than me when he left, even proposing that we go and find him for up to a year afterward.
Mum only lives with me on the weekends now. She was diagnosed with MS about five years ago but has only started deteriorating physically the last couple of years. She lives in a home during the week and comes back to the house Friday night till Monday. Once we’d sorted out the financial mess that Da had left behind, she got the house signed over to me, and then signed herself into the home at Lytham St Annes. Originally she decided that she would stay there full time but I insisted and in the end I think she was grateful to come home part-time. It works out pretty well with my jobs and besides Shugsy and Marlene (my only female friend, I’ll come to her in a bit as well) live here with me and they help out. Anyone looking in would think it’s a bit of a strange set-up but it seems perfectly normal to me, it just kind of happened. Anyway I’d already lost one parent, I didn’t fancy losing another, Oscar Wilde would have a field day. If he wasn’t dead.
Mum still likes to be independent and she hasn’t let the fact that she’s in a wheelchair 90% of the time put her off doing what she wants. In that respect she puts me to shame. I’m quite keen to make like a sloth when I’m not working but she virtually kicks me and Shugsy out of the house to go down the pub so she can have one of her talks with Marlene, who she sees as the daughter she never had. I think that Mum still thinks that me and Marlene might get it together one day, but we’ve been friends too long and in that respect Mum has kind of got her wish, she does seem more like a sister to me. I had the kitchen re-fitted when Mum was diagnosed so all the counter tops are low enough for her to reach and she can get in and out of all the doors whilst still in her chair. Mum and Marlene handle the cooking which is just as well as I’m useless with food, kind of ironic given that one of my jobs is in the food industry and Shugsy’s sole contribution is to lug the shopping in and consume it as fast as it’s put in front of him. Mum virtually lives downstairs anyway whilst me and Shugsy take the upstairs and Marlene has the attic room, which has been converted into a loft. I think it appeals to her artistic tendencies anyway, she pretends she’s in Manhattan or somewhere, even if she is looking out over the Lancashire moors.
Marlene probably dislikes her name more than I detest mine. Most people assume that she’s named after the braying blousy wife of Del Boy’s mate in Only Fools and Horses and do oh-so-amusing impression, i.e. “Maaaarleeeene” which makes me want to wrap their heads in a carrier bag and pull the handles till they go purple. So would you if you had introduced her to someone and heard it for the gazillionth time. Anyway, if they stopped to think for a moment they would realise that Marlene is thirty-two and predates John Sullivan’s creation’s first appearance on telly by at least ten years. No, she is named after a song on her Dad’s all time musical hero, Todd Rundgren’s third album “Something/Anything”. Which is kind of sweet, given that the words go “Marlene, you’re the prettiest girl I’ve ever seen,” and sings about how his eyes will always see hers. I think that was the first album I ever heard, in Marlene’s bedroom, and we still listen to it every once in a while, even though she cries every time her song comes on. Marlene is still close to her Dad, even though he lives in California, and talks to him nearly every week and e-mails him at least once a day. It’s a damn sight better reason to name someone anyway. Even though she’s still not keen on the name at least she’ll always have the real reason behind it in her head as I hover behind someone doing their best Boycie down the pub with a Morrison’s bag in my hand. Marlene sometimes jokes that we might as well get married because no-one else would want us and we put any prospective partners off anyway because we’re so close. I usually say that no-one would want me but she could have any bloke she wanted. Occasionally, if she’s having a sense of humour failure or she’s had too much cider she gets a bit intense and starts telling me how I should stop talking like that and she grasps my hand and starts touching my face which freaks me out a bit, especially if Shugsy’s with us. It only embarrasses the big dope, but at least it means he usually shambles off to get a round in. She does worry me sometimes with her intense chats, but mostly she’s a sweet-natured girl (yeah I know I should call her a woman, but I still think of us as teenagers, so deal with it) and she’d do anything for you. I do feel incredibly protective of her but I usually leave it to Shugsy to defend her honour if the need arises, given that he’s six foot four and walks like he’s got a coathanger still in his coat, and I look like Jarvis Cocker’s weedy younger brother, only with worse hair.

Shugsy’s real name is Allan Burns but I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone call him that since school. Come to think of it, even the teachers ended up calling him Shugsy in the end. Shugsy is, well, a bit slow or, as Dorothy describes Gregory in Gregory’s Girl; slow and awkward, yeah slow and awkward. It is almost as if the teenage Shugs had carried on growing physically but mentally he hasn’t really kept pace. It’s not as if he’s thick or anything, it’s just occasionally it takes a while for the hamster to pedal the wheel quick enough for the light to burn at 100 watts. Marlene and me just treat as him as a lovable dope really, he’d probably have been better off being born as an Old English Sheepdog but then we’d have had no-one to lug the furniture around. Shugsy comes from a long line of Shugsy’s, his dad and granddad both carried the name but I’ve never satisfactorily found out where it comes from, it’s just some Glasgow thing, which is where he was born and lived until his mum brought him down to escape from the relentless grind of nineteen seventies Girvan. Even though he’s been south of the border for twenty odd years, he’s never lost his accent, if anything it’s got more pronounced as he gets older. Put it this way, we didn’t need the subtitles on when we watched Rab C Nesbitt or Chewin The Fat, we just got Shugsy to tell us what was going on. As I said Shugsy can look a bit imposing as he clatters down the street, I always remember when we were about fifteen and people were giving him a bit of a wide berth as we strolled along and he turned to me and said ‘why’s everyone lookin’ at us funny George?’ I just shook my head, and he still doesn’t know the effect he has on strangers. Having said that, I’ve never seen him raise more than his voice, and he doesn’t even do that except when he’s blootered. We did fall out once but it was over something so trivial I doubt he remembers, I do though, at the time we were twelve or thirteen and it seemed like that was the end of everything, I remember not seeing him for a month during the summer holidays and worrying about what I was going to say when I saw him again. Then we bumped into each other in town and it was like we’d only seen each other a couple of hours previously. I suspect he’d be the same if I emigrated to Australia and we met up again decades later. So that’s us; good old dependable, slow and awkward Shugsy, sweet-natured dreamer Marlene and me, the brains of the operation, God help us.

I’m sitting here now looking at a photograph of the three of us. We’re sitting on the top of some hillside in the Lake District somewhere. The camera was balanced on a cairn as I remember and I’d set the self-timer and run back into shot. Just as the flash went off though the camera had fallen slightly to one side, meaning we’re a bit lop-sided but the picture is so good that I kept it anyway. Marlene is looking a bit wistful, her chestnut hair blowing over one eye and she’s shielding her other eye with her hand. Even though the sun is reflected on her face, Marlene’s skin still looks pale, almost pearlescent, as it always did. I’m turned slightly to one side trying to bat a mosquito away and Shugsy’s standing between us both, one arm on my shoulder and the other paw wrapped round Marlene’s waist, with his tongue hanging out, the daft ha’peth. He’s got some ridiculous sunglasses balanced on his bushy head, which wasn’t like him, they were probably mine and he wanted to borrow them for comic value. The light is perfect, that time that my mother always calls ‘the best part of the day’ to which I always feigned ignorance and it drives her batty. I know she’s referring to the light you usually get only at dusk when the sun is balanced between up and down. Funny how things turn out really, if I could have stayed there forever I would have been happy but once the balance got tipped away from me, I knew things were never going to be the same. I’ve never really cried since but I knew now I was about to let go. When the levee broke inside of me I sobbed until I was dry heaving and I had to hide the photograph because the pain was physical.

It probably won’t surprise you to learn that the three of us were big into role-playing. And by that I don’t mean the sort of idiotic scenario you have to do in some office training course. I had to do one of those once when I started working for the well-known sandwich sellers I earned a crust from (‘scuse the pun). It was the usual customer and ‘sandwich artist’ (their title for the drones behind the counter) set-up with the twist that the ‘customer’ used to work for the firm and demanded a sandwich that we no longer provided. I was nearly sacked there and then as I recall, after inviting the customer round the other side of the counter to see if they could find the salami that they insisted we still sold. I’ve never seen the point of acting out situations which happen in real life every day, I learnt more in the first week ‘on the job’ than I ever did in ‘Sub University’. I shit you not, they really did think sending new employees away for a fortnight to an industrial estate on the edge of Hemel Hempstead and issuing us with a diploma in sandwich assembly was enough to equip us for a career in food management. No, we were role-players of the hexagonal dice and spells variety. We started on the common-or-garden Dungeons and Dragons but soon graduated onto a variation which was based on the Star Wars trilogy. Look, I did warn you, it isn’t going to get much better than this, and much as I hate to put you off, if you really have an irrational hatred of geeks, it’s best we part company now, have a nice life. Stick with me though, it does get better, then it gets downright fucking heartbreaking and ends up….oh I dunno, getting a bit carried away there, my mother wouldn’t be happy with that kind of attitude.

OK, another thing while I’m being all up front and personal, our virginity status (Statii?) I know you want to know, don’t lie. Well, I’m not, just about but it was so long ago I may as well be. Marlene thinks she isn’t, but medically speaking we’re not sure. Basically, one night she decided she was sick of having the thing around so she got drunk at a works do and virtually threw herself at some poor sap who thought it was Christmas. Come to think of it, it was a Christmas do. Anyway, he was hoonered as well and she doesn’t know if he managed to park his car in the garage. They woke up the next morning, still in bed together but mortally embarrassed. She’s never spoken about it since and I’ve never asked, so I assume nothing has happened since. Shugsy had his heart broken when he was sixteen, I don’t think he got around to consummating the relationship and he hasn’t been with a girl since. I don’t think of him as a sexual being and I don’t think he does either. So now you know.
Anyway, where was I? Oh yeah, back when we spent many a happy evening trekking across the desert wastelands of Tatooine, or escaping from bounty hunters by the skin of our teeth in a knackered old spaceship. I almost always took the role of gamesmaster, Shugsy didn’t really have the breadth of imagination required to conjure up an alien world and Marlene didn’t want to give up her character which seemed to be pitched somewhere between Princess Leia and Boadicea. God alone knows how many hours we spent, I can’t even remember when we stopped or why, I guess real life took over for a while and we just never got back into it. I’m sure if I looked hard enough, I’d find all the old gaming stuff, probably in the commodious wardrobe up in the loft room that looks like it should be the gateway to Narnia. I bet Marlene and Shugsy would be up for re-animating the old characters. It wouldn’t be quite the same though, nostalgia isn’t what it used to be.

I’m a bit loath to re-enforce our little gang’s geek credentials still further, but for the sake of completion and historical accuracy, and given that you’ve stuck with me this far, I may as well lay it all on the line. At least it’s all in the open then and you can’t say you’ve not had fair warning.

Just remember that it makes us happy and if you had the kind of shitty jobs we have then you’d do whatever the hell it took to get you through the day in one piece. Most nights you’ll find us crashed out in front of a DVD, we’ll watch almost anything but chick flicks are out unless Mum is around. Me and Shugsy don’t bother with the TV much unless Sopranos is on, which is unmissable and Shugsy likes his CSI. Marlene lets the side down somewhat by watching all that crap with ‘nightmare’ or ‘hell’ or ‘swap’ in the title. Basically, anything that starts ‘Britain’s worst….’ And she’s there. And she encourages my mother as well. It’s usually our cue to disappear down the pub. Thankfully she draws the line at Pop Idol or Big Brother, saying it exploits the participants. I did try and point out the inconsistencies in her argument, considering the tripe she does watch but she had one of her sense of humour failures so I left it. I find it’s always best to let it go when Marlene starts getting intense, I love her to bits but when she gets upset, that’s when my balance gets thrown out and they start getting heavy.

Hey, look, I’m getting there alright? Just sit tight it’ll probably all work out in the end I promise. Maybe not for the best, but you’ll have to trust me. So if I start throwing in some odd concepts and weird shapes just humour me, my brain doesn’t exactly work like it used to. You’ll get the idea soon enough. It’s kind of like parallel lines, they never come together, but occasionally there’ll be a near coming together of my brain waves and that’s where things might take a turn for the unexpected. I can’t predict when it’s going to happen but it will sooner rather than later, so try and prepare yourself. I’ll try and give you some advance warning.

Right, where was I? Oh yeah, life outside work hours. We all enjoy walking, except Mum of course, although she likes to sit out in the garden and watch our progress up to the hills out the back until we disappear, for some reason it gives her some comfort. Then she wheels herself back into the house and makes supper for when we get back. I know it’s kind of a cliché, but she really doesn’t complain, there’s just the frustration when she can’t do something mundane, like opening a can. Before she moved into the home, I’d hear her downstairs, just sitting in the kitchen, giving herself a talking to as she tried to make a cup of tea. I did ask her about it once, one of the few times she talked about her condition with anyone except her doctor as far as I know,
“I just feel so tired sometimes, George. It’s not like me, it’s like I’m not in control of my own body anymore.” She did look tired. Tired and old all of a sudden. “You know what your da would have told me.”
“Aye, some crap about getting your eight hours kip. He were full of good advice, and full of shit.”
“George!” Mum was always a bit prudish about language. Personally, I like a good swear. There’s nothing like a good ‘fuck’ to break the ice at a party. And I mean that in it’s use as a noun or adjective, not a verb. I’ve never had a good verbing at a party. I’ve never got invited to parties either, but you get the idea.
“What do you reckon da would have been like now though. Same as ever, still swanning off down the boozer with his mates, not doing a tap around the house,” I said.
“I don’t know, he might have changed, but he didn’t like facing the truth your father,” Mum said pensively, “he was always more of a man for action than talking about something.”
“Well he certainly didn’t talk for long about doing one did he? That’s one time when I could have done with a man to man chat, before he acted,” I said, “I’m sorry, I know you don’t want to hear me slagging him off.” Mum was looking away, biting her lip. I stuck the kettle on again and finished making the tea and we chatted for a couple of hours about anything other than da until I fell asleep on the sofa. If the selfish sod had seen the shit he’d left behind, I wonder if he’d have thought twice before leaving, I doubt it somehow.

Christ, I’m off the subject again aren’t I? I do apologise, this is what happens, I wander between situations a lot these days, it does keep me from thinking about things too much, but it isn’t going to help you keep up is it? As I said, we go off walking in the countryside a lot. Shugsy can walk for miles without a break, but Marlene and I like to have a destination in mind, usually a pub or bus stop. That’s the problem with not having a car between us, you have to rely on public transport, which in this country is like taking four items at random out of the wardrobe and hoping that you’ll look dressed when you put them on. The nearest train station is a good, and by that I mean bad, bus ride away, so we’re a bit limited in where we can get to in a day. I can’t leave Mum by herself overnight so we always have to get back. Still, it’s amazing how far you can go in six or seven hours. The only thing I can’t be doing with is waking in bad weather, I just don’t see the attraction in trudging through driving rain just to say you did it, so in that regard I’m a bit of a fair-weather hiker. Marlene is worse than me, if it starts spitting she’s looking for the way home, and as for fog forget it. I think that stems from when we tried to get along Striding Edge to the summit of Helvellyn once and the fog came down. We only got through it by leading each other with baby footsteps, Shugsy taking point and me at the front, looking like those black and white films you see of soldiers in World War I who have been affected by mustard gas. When we got back down to near sea level, even Shugsy said ‘never again’. I like going off bird watching as well, the only thing I insist on doing solo, Shugsy only scares the wildlife off with his bulk and Marlene doesn’t have the patience to sit in a hide waiting for an avocet to wander into view. I don’t do anything organised and actively shun any groups who encourage you to record your sightings. I even get twitchy, so to speak, if anyone else comes into a hide, so I usually go early in the morning, taking my bicycle and being back home before lunch. I find it helps me to concentrate and I need my full concentration most of the time right now. Ok, I promise that’s enough already of the mystery, next time I’ll try and explain, is it a deal?

I don’t really want to talk about my ‘brilliant’ career much either. I guess I’ll have to though, if only to explain what happened and why. I’ve already alluded to my part-time job, knocking out sub sandwiches to people thinking they’re doing well to cut McDonalds out of their fast food diet. It’s only part time and the money isn’t exactly special but I get to eat all the subs I want. Which isn’t often, because like anyone in the food industry, the last thing I want to do is eat anything I’ve been looking at all day, even if I know that I’ve been involved in the whole assembly and some miscreant hasn’t slipped a spoonful of something resembling mayonnaise onto my tuna six inch with salad, hold the olives and gherkins. Shugsy is less fussy though and will gladly accept anything I shove his way, although to be fair he does really graft for a living as a plasterer and refuels about six times a day. So much for the sarnies then, my main occupation as I would put in my passport if I had one is bookseller. Four days a week I can be found between ten and six at Grant’s Book Exchange and Graphic Novel Emporium. As you can guess from the title, it’s a bit of a nerd’s paradise, but despite the wanky title you do get more than the usual student and Trekkie clientele. The eponymous Grant is, however a proper wanker. If you could find someone less likeable to work for, well good luck and I’d like to compare notes. It’s not that he’s particularly odious, he just criticises everything. It doesn’t bother me as much as it used to, in fact it amuses me now to wind him up. Poor old Sean who also works there as the ‘graphic novel expert’ – Grant’s own job description – still can’t get his head around him and worries that he’s going to get sacked roughly once every other day. I’m nominally in charge of the book stock, but in practise Grant has to check every volume on the shelf, or at least he likes to think he does. In theory all of the stock is second-hand but he has a contact at a few publishers and he knocks out stock which never quite found it’s way to the shops or disappeared from a lay-by outside Mansfield and miraculously ended up a hundred miles away. Grant likes to fancy himself as a bit of a wide-boy, he actually does think he’s in Lock Stock or some shite sometimes, talking about shooters and geezers whereas he’d crap his boxers if he was ever faced with a slightly sharpened letter opener being thrust in front of him. He does however, pay over the odds for the work for some reason and he lets me and Sean have free rein over the choice of music on the shop stereo, which is a bonus. In fact, he’s very rarely actually in the place, which suits me fine as well, it’s just that when he is around, he doesn’t half let us know about it. Marlene can’t stand him at all which would make it even more galling for her to know that Grant fancies her, a fact he intimated to me once, on a rare occasion when he took ‘his staff’ for a beer after work. I didn’t tell him that she wouldn’t piss on him if he was on fire, come to think of it he’d probably get off on that, he’s a kinky bastard is Grant. If you’ve ever seen a Channel Four sitcom about the life of an alcoholic, misogynistic, curmudgeonly Irish second-hand bookshop owner and have had a mild hankering to spend your life surrounded by part-complete complete works of Dickens being harangued by a bloke who says he speaks as he finds and is somehow proud of the fact, well I’d not recommend it. It’s not that the work’s difficult, it’s just that it loses it’s somewhat limited thrill pretty quickly and becomes like any other job, even if you’re the most enthusiastic bibliophile. Sometimes the weight of all those collected words gets too much and I have this overwhelming urge to run amok amongst the Stephen Kings and do a Fahrenheit 451 and burn the lot. Thankfully those days are few and far between, and besides Sean would never recover from seeing his beloved ‘Sandman’ collection go up in smoke.

Although I had been working for Grant longer than any other of his employees, he still won’t trust me to accept stock from customers. Or, at least, he will allow me to accept stock but then I have to go through the whole rigmarole of looking up the rough second hand price of every book being offered before I give a price. And this isn’t some industry manual of second hand book prices, if one exists, which I doubt. Flogging second hand books isn’t an exact science, but if it was, no doubt Grant would say he was a professor and stick some made up letters after his name. In fact, come to think of it, he has got a manual that he wrote about five years ago, that goes into far-end-of-a-fart details about the minutiae of the second hand book industry. I’m not joking, it even has scenarios where he describes how to deal with just about every situation you might encounter in the high octane world of knocking out used books. I read the first chapter once when I was incredibly bored and I lost any respect I had for the man then, not that I had more than a gnat’s fart’s worth before then. It even included a mission statement at the start which made even the one in Jerry Maguire seem sincere. I don’t know what he makes in a year from the shop but it surely isn’t enough to support two staff members and his lifestyle, such as it is. Sean and I have speculated on what else he does to supplement his income from the shop and have come up with a wide range of activities, including dealing drugs (possible – I did come across some hollowed out books in the back room once which could have held at least a kilo of Class A, when I mentioned it to Grant he nearly shit a brick and let me leave early). My best guess was porn though, he’s always resisted the temptation to open an ‘adult section’ like most of the other second-hand shops around. He reckons he’s above all that and he doesn’t need to ‘peddle smut to sad wankers’. I say he would be ideal material in that case as he would know his target audience intimately. To be honest though, I’m pretty glad, not because I’m arsed about having the dirty mac brigade mixing with our regular customers, but the thought of handling second hand porn mags makes me feel dirty. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not anti-porn but if there’s one item that should only have one owner it’s a jazz mag. No doubt if we did have a change of policy though, Grant would have a supplementary chapter in the manual on the correct pricing structure for one-handed art pamphlets by the end of the week.

The types of people we get selling stuff to us varies from students selling off their old text books for beer tokens, to dodgy looking bastards shiftily handing over a few moody hardbacks and taking the first price we give. Our largest amount of stock comes from usually single blokes handing over boxes of the stuff. You can see them coming a mile off. Typically they park right outside the shop, heft one box out of the boot and stagger up to the counter with it, before running out and bringing a few more equally laden boxes in and looking expectantly at me or Sean. These are the worst type of customers, because they invariably stand there watching as you inspect every book individually. Even though the reason they’re selling the books is usually because they’re newly divorced and trying to get rid of any assets before the solicitor moves in they still argue the toss over the price, no matter how generous we’ve been.

The rough estimate Grant employs is buy for somewhere between ten and twenty percent of the cover price, depending on condition and offer a quarter the price of exchange in cash. “It’s industry standard,” he says. Like there’s a whole industry for this rather flimsy excuse for a business, it makes me think of governing bodies and annual conferences called Bookexcon or some such. The nearest thing approaching such an event is the annual book festival at Hay-On-Wye, which of course, Grant refuses to attend, “because it’s full of ponces and wankers.” The irony is lost on him of course.

On the day that changed my life forever, Grant was out of town, attending to ‘a bit of business’. Neither Sean or myself could summon even a grain of interest to ask what the nature of this business was, despite the fact that Grant hung around the desk, obviously itching to tell us. In the end, he gathered up a sheath of unsold copies of Eddie Campbell’s ‘Bacchus’ series and swept out in a cloud of his own intrigue to his waiting knackered old Punto.
“Wankstick!” I observed, Sean snickered and went over to fill the space Grant had created in the graphic novel section. Sean was a bit anal about alphabetisation in his domain and I could see the havoc that Grant had wreaked had caused him a great deal of personal angst. I went back to thinking of one hundred and one uses for the last Booker Prize winner’s pile of unsold hardbacks. Then the door clanked open and a bloke huffed in with an overflowing box. Probably contained some books I idly surmised. I have a gift for that kind of thing.
“Do you buy books?” he said, dumping the box next to the large sign affixed to the counter saying ‘we buy books, all conditions. Valid ID required.’
“We have been known to, but only to fund our underground crime fighting syndicate.” I said. He looked at me like I was soft in the head. I could see I was going to be on a mark down with this one.
“I’ve got these books to sell,” he said, helpfully indicating the box currently spilling its contents in front of me.
“I see,” I said, “and have they been in the family long?”
“Sorry?” Christ almighty.
“How many have you got here roughly?” I really couldn’t be arsed to do a full inventory of this lot, just the top layer looked like the sort of rubbish we already had proliferating the shelves. I’d already clocked one ‘Bible Code’, three Phillip Pullmans and a brace of Titchmarsh. The signs weren’t good.
“Er, I don’t know, they’re not mine you see. About fifty?” The bloke seemed distracted.
“Do you mind me asking where they came from?” I said, mentally jotting down a description of the man.
“My, er, wife.”
“Does she know that you’re selling them? Sorry to be awkward but you know.” I nodded at the ID sign.
“No. She’s dead.” Oh fuck-poles. How shit did I feel?
“Oh God, I’m so sorry.” We get a few blokes like this through every now and again but this one did seem genuine. I actually caught myself trying to remember what advice Grant had given me to help decide if the vendor was genuine when they played the grief card. Oh, bollocks, I thought, I’d better be straight, he might start blubbing. I went through the box, totting up a total as I went. In the end I told him fifteen pounds cash or forty two exchange and surprisingly he took the exchange. That made me feel worse, ninety five percent of sellers take cash, but him taking exchange made his story check out more in my mind. I then committed the cardinal sin (in Grant’s big book of toss) of issuing a credit note and saying he could come back and use it anytime.
“Always make sure they use the exchange there and then George. We can’t be pissin’ about with credit notes, we’ll end up with a load of stock and nowhere to put it. Alright squire?” Told you he was annoying didn’t I? Using sobriquets like squire and chief was just one of the many infuriating traits he has.
Hang on a minute. You might notice that I’m ducking in and out of tenses like I don’t know when things happened. There is a reason for this, but I’m conscious that I promised you no more mystery, so sorry about that, you’ll just have to bear with me.
Anyway, the bloke looked at the credit note like it was all he had left of his dead wife, then picked up a copy of a book called ‘How much joy can you stand?’ that we keep on the counter as an impulse buy for insecure women and thrust it towards me. Personally, looking at the bloke, I thought I could answer the question for him, save him reading the thing.
“I’ll take this now, how much is that off the forty two pounds?”
“Er, don’t worry mate, it’s on the house.” I said, pushing it back to him. Sean looked up from his sorting with a ‘does not compute’ look on his face. “Sorry about the, you know, misunderstanding.”
“Oh, OK, thanks. You’ve been very obliging.” The poor guy was obviously not used to anyone showing him any sort of consideration. I felt even shitter, if that was possible, even Grant might have felt a twitch of compassion, before he shafted him on the price. He made for the door, but then turned and came back to the desk. He reached into his inside coat pocket and pulled out a slim paperback book and held it out to me. The cover was plain blue with just two words on it.
“It’s yours. Take it and read it tonight.” He glanced over at Sean, who pretended to be fascinated by ‘Silver Surfer meets Spiderman. The bloke lowered his voice conspiratorily, “I hope it helps you like it helped me.” Then he turned and scampered out of the shop. That last line really troubled me somehow, he didn’t seem like he’d a whole heap of good fortune lately and I suddenly ran through a list of conspiracies, top of which was that he’d murdered his wife. I looked down at the book in my hand. The title was ‘Be Lucky!’

Predictably, Grant went ape-shit when he came back. I don’t mind him launching into his ‘deeply hurt at the trust he’s put in me’ routine, in fact, quite the opposite. The only thing I have to remember is not to laugh out loud in his face, that really pisses him off and he starts getting personal. No, the thing that bugs me is that he never does it when the shop’s shut and there’s no customers around to hear his pathetic rantings. I get embarrassed for them more than anything, if I was browsing for something to read on holiday or whatever, I wouldn’t want my musings interrupted by some oik berating the guy behind the counter. Sure enough, once Grant got into his stride, a guy who was on the verge of bringing over a copy of Irvine Welsh’s ‘Porno’ over to pay, stuck it back on the shelf and stalked out of the shop. Sean scuttled over to replace it under ‘Fiction – W’ from where the bloke had stuffed it in Art History. Grant would probably give him a lecture later about demarcation and remits or some bollocks.
“I wouldn’t mind so much, GG,” he started, “but I have made it very, very frickin’ clear that under no circumstances do we issue credit notes. I don’t care if the guy had just buried his wife!”

Yeah, two things you might have picked up on there. Firstly, I only ever accept ‘GG’ as a term of address from either Marlene or Shugsy and no other, not that they would even consider it and second, yes he did say ‘frickin’, he thinks that swearing when there’s a woman present, as there was at that moment, is dreadfully vulgar. It doesn’t seem to stop him when he’s with the ‘chaps’ and he peppers his speech with as many fucks as he can get in mind you, but there’s the mark of the man; a grade A two-faced fool. Anyway, back to the rant.

“Where’s the stock anyway? Maybe we can punt it on.” You’d think he was talking about a consignment of coffee beans or something.
“I priced it and ‘punted it’ onto the shelves” I said.
“You did what???” Grant spluttered, actually putting a hand out on the counter to steady himself. I was struggling to control myself now. Sean had disappeared into the back room.
“I priced it up and put it out. It’s all in the book. I think a couple of them have gone already.”
“Jesus pissin’ Christ George!” he said, “Oh, sorry,” he apologised to the woman customer, who by now had decided to take her custom elsewhere. I didn’t blame her, I wish I could go with her, but I was trapped behind the counter. “Give me the book.” We did have a book to record all purchases. We were supposed to individually itemise everything, but in practise I usually put general descriptions along with a total price paid. Thankfully in this case I’d been a bit more conscientious for a change and listed everything, along with the price I’d marked in each book before I put it on the shelf. Look, it’d been a slow day.
“How much did you give him for the Pullmans?”
“A quid apiece, they were in good nick.”
“Yeah but we must have how many already in. How many,” he looked in vain for Sean to back him up, “how many have we got in?”
“I dunno,” I said, “a few.”
“Don’t be disingenuous George, you always know what we’ve got out on display.” I like it when Grant learns a new word, he uses it then you can see the suspicion that he hasn’t applied it in the right context move across his brain like a juggernaut with four flat tyres. He’s got a mind like a steel prat has Grant.
The upshot was that he closed the shop half an hour early and we had an impromptu stock take of anything we’d taken in the last three months. To me, it defeated the object, we lost out on any passing trade of people going home from work and we found stuff that we shouldn’t still have lying around. Still, it made Grant happy in his petty insecurity. Amazingly, he even wanted to carry on the exercise past my Foxtrot Oscar time. I soon put him right by collecting my coat and scooting out as he stomped around in the store room, looking for a proof copy of ‘The Life of Pi’ that he was convinced we still had and he reckoned was somehow worth twenty quid, the twat. On the bus home, I had a quick flick through ‘Be Lucky’. At first (and second) glance it looked the worst kind of trashy self-help book that I would normally cross several streets to avoid. It looked like it should have been written by an American but the publisher’s details showed a PO Box in Norwich. Must have been a vanity publisher I thought. The author was someone called Guy Mattinson, there was even an author photo of a chinless wonder with what I can only describe as a towering mass of pubes on his head. So far, so crappy. I persevered through the ponderous introduction if only because I was intrigued by what the guy with the dead wife (as I liked to think of him) had said about it changing his life. It was just then that I remembered that I hadn’t asked him for ID either, Grant would have a cow when he realised that mistake. The bus turned into the road for my stop just then and then my mobile phone rang, or rather buzzed, I can’t be doing with ring-tones. It was Marlene and she was in bits.

Marlene’s dad had suffered a heart attack. Apparently he’d recently taken up cycling in an attempt to keep up with his new, younger wife and had been coming back home from a ten mile spin along the beach not far from Santa Barbara where he lives (you might remember it from such films as ‘American Pie II’ and ‘Seabiscuit’) when he basically keeled over. Luckily he tipped onto the sand but he still suffered a gashed leg and numerous cuts and bruises as well. They were the least of his worries though I guess, apparently he was still in intensive care and from what Marlene could gather from the doctor she spoke to, the next forty-eight hours were critical. She was beside herself with worry and when I got in, I spent the first fifteen minutes just holding her as she sobbed into my shoulder. Then I did the only thing I could think of doing, I went on the internet and used my credit card to book her a return open flight to California.

She only briefly protested when I gave her the tickets but only because she thought I couldn’t afford it. In truth, I couldn’t really but I wasn’t about to let her know. Some things are worth more than money and I’d been brainwashed by the Mastercard advert. Marlene cried a bit more but then got practical and rushed around packing and hunting down her passport. Her flight was at six the next morning and I stayed up all night with her, alternately reassuring her, hugging her and making her laugh with some of my crappiest puns. It seemed to work, because she was never going to sleep but she was paranoid that she would nod off and miss the flight. I booked the taxi and took her case out to the car. Her face was still shiny with tears but there was something else there as she kissed me goodbye. I tried to ignore it but as I walked back to the house and pushed the door shut and let my head loll against it, finally exhausted, I knew that it was the look that my mother had seen and told me about. Marlene was in love with me.

Branston pickle. Not my choice of the cornerstone of a meal, especially not for breakfast, but Shugsy was tucking into what looked like a plate of pickle with a side order of sausages and hash browns. Shugs got through the chunky condiment like most people get through bread or milk and we had ended up sourcing the catering size jar from a specialist company who actually delivered the stuff to our door.
“Marlene get off alright then George?” he said, picking up a hunk of bread to mop his plate with, “there’s a couple of bangers in the grill pan,” he indicated with his fork.
“Cheers, big man,” I said, pulling out a plate from the cupboard. “Yeah, she should be there in good time, the check in was still two hours off. “
“Aye, hope there’s no delays, that’s some flight.”
“About nine hours it reckoned.” I said, buttering a couple of rounds of bread for a sausage butty. And yes, I do eat butties sometimes as long as it isn’t one of the fillings I have to make at work. There was a companionable silence as I munched and Shugsy slurped at his mug of tea.
“You been up all night? You looked knackered mate,” he said.
“Yeah, think I’ll get a few hours in before work. Can you give us a bell about two if you remember. I want to ring the hospital before I go.”
“Nae problem George, you get your head down for a bit.” Shugs stood up and batted me on the back as he lumbered out, pausing only to pick up his enormous lunch provisions (with a clump of Branston Pickle the size of a football no doubt), then he was off to work. As the door closed, the house suddenly seemed very quiet and I needed some noise. I slotted Muse’s ‘Origin of Symmetry’ into the kitchen CD player, then fell asleep in the front room to ‘Plug in Baby’. That’s how knackered I was.

I forgot about ‘Be lucky!’ for the next few days as it remained stuck behind the toaster, along with Marlene’s unopened mail. She had rung a couple of times from California to keep us updated her on her dad’s progress. Seems he had stabilised and was now off the critical list but was being kept in for observation at a no doubt exorbitant daily charge. Marlene sounded OK, if a little strained, not surprising really, her only connection with Santa Barbara was her father and he was confined to bed, so she was having to find her own way around. She had been out to see him on a few occasions previously but those times he had lived in San Francisco, so she was finding it difficult to get her bearings in a new town. She was staying in his house but so was her father’s new wife, not surprisingly, and despite the fact that the house was large, they obviously had to interact at some stage. It would have been testing under any circumstances but when the man they both loved (albeit in different ways) was lying incapacitated by a potentially life-threatening condition, the relationship was seemingly strained to say the least. Marlene wasn’t shy by any means, but she was certainly reserved until she got to know you, I remember that I thought she was a right stuck up little madam for the first few years at school until I got friendly with her, and the cultural differences weren’t helping Marlene and Cindy (aargh, clichéd Californian alert!) to bond quickly. Although Marlene had an open return ticket, I think she was wishing her father back to recovery quickly for more than one reason, she was planning on coming back to Britain almost as soon as he was home, by the sound of things. She sounded tired and she’d probably been crying when I spoke to her last, her voice sounded quieter as if she was trying to stop someone else overhearing, I presumed Cindy, but Marlene had told me that there had been quite a few people over at the house, all Cindy’s friends and relations and she’d been trying to stay out of their way. Before she rang off it seemed like she was keeping me on, trying to work up to saying something but in the end she just told me to take care and put the phone down, her voice almost tailing off to nothing before the connection was gone.

I deliberately hadn’t told Mum what had happened when I rang her on the Thursday before she was due back home. I didn’t like giving her undue reasons to worry because I knew she’d stew on it and wouldn’t sleep properly, which seemed to make her MS worse. When she did arrive at the house, she didn’t make any comment about her absence because Marlene would have still been at work anyway.
“I’m a bit tired love, I’ll go for a bit of a lie-down for a few hours,” she said, after kissing me on the cheek. She did look fairly weary, although she often was when she came home, even though the journey was only around an hour, it seemed to drain her, despite being driven by someone from the home.
“Ok, I’ll be nipping out to the supermarket when Shuggsy gets back so don’t worry of there’s no-one around when you wake up. And don’t do too much!” I said.
“Oh don’t fuss so George,” she said, but she didn’t mean it, she just likes to think there’s nothing wrong and she hates that her body can’t do everything she asks of it anymore.

Once mum was asleep I belled Shuggsy on his mobile and wasn’t surprised to hear he was in the pub. Not our local, the Beehive, but the scuzzy boozer that he goes in with his workmates, the Primrose. I told him to get his arse out of there after the pint he was drinking so he could help me get the shopping back, then I jumped on the bus off to Morrisons. I’d got halfway round when Shuggs joined me, he was pushing a trolley already half laden with stuff he’d pulled off the shelves. I didn’t bother asking, I knew he thought I didn’t get enough food in so he always supplemented it with his own choices. To be fair, he always paid for his share and usually chipped in a few extra quid. He’d obviously just been paid as well, as he ostentatiously flashed a wad of notes in front of me and chucked the family size pack of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes in my trolley, simultaneously replacing the own brand box I’d selected.
“Don’t be a tightwad, Georgie boy!” he exclaimed (again only Shugs and Marlene would dare….) “Shuggsy has been with Lou Gramm and the boys again!” Lou Gramm being the lead singer of Foreigner, therefore denoting that Shuggsy had been paid to do a private plastering job, outside of his normal employ. I apologise if I can hear eggs being sucked out there but you never know who you’re talking to do you, don’t feel patronised.
We meandered round the aisles, Shugsy telling us about the house he’d been working on and the amount of biscuits he’d consumed there. Then he jumped on the back of his trolley base with both feet and rode it down to the checkouts, attempted to bring it to a smooth stop but only succeeded in shunting into a stationary trolley and pushing that into a woman who was unloading her groceries onto the conveyor belt.
“Sorry love,” he said, the big kid.
“You’ve lost your trolley no-claims bonus there Shugs, I said. We got through the checkout without further mishaps, you probably won’t be surprised to hear we’ve perfected a system for packing whereby I deal with all the fridge and freezer items and Shuggsy packs anything else. You won’t forget what a geek I am will you? Shugs lugged six carrier bags to the bus stop while I managed four. After waiting for ten minutes in a light drizzle, Shugs said ‘bollocks to this’ and hailed a black cab that was cruising past. I didn’t argue, that was one of Shuggsy’s assets, whenever he had money in his bin, he shared it around. He’d offered to pay for half of Marlene’s ticket when he’d heard about it, but I’d declined. Don’t know why, especially as I wasn’t sure how I was going to pay the bill when it came through.
As the taxi chugged through what passed for a rush hour in the town, Shuggsy was obviously thinking. I could tell this because he stopped rooting through the bags for something to eat for a minute.
“Why don’t we do something with your mum this weekend?” he said, finally.
“Like what, take her out on the moors and leave her?” Shuggs was used to my flippant humour thankfully.
“No, like go somewhere. I could hire us a car.” Shuggsy was the only one of us who had passed their driving test, and he occasionally would hire a car and transport us to the Lakes or the coast. Only trouble was, he drove like he rode a shopping trolley.
“Yeah, that’s not a bad idea, I’ll split it with you.” I offered. Luckily Shugs turned the proposal down.
“Don’t be daft man, I’m good for it. I’ll give them a bell when I get in.”
“Aye alright, you do that and I’ll sort out somewhere for you to chauffeur us to.” Shugs settled back with a pack of chocolate digestives, happy with his plan. It didn’t take much to satisfy the big man.

When we got back to the house, Mum was up and about and inevitably by now had noticed Marlene’s absence. After I’d filled her in on the details and she’d tutted and aahed, she asked me to fire up the computer so she could dictate an e-mail for me to send her. At the end of the message, she asked me to put something she’d never said to Marlene in person before, she said to say she loved her, not ‘all my love’ or some other platitude but ‘I love you’. I got a strange feeling after I’d sent the e-mail, but mum just got on with making a brew. I guess that mum thinks of my two friends as a kind of family now, as I said before she always said that Marlene was like a daughter and I guess Shuggsy was a sort of dopey kid brother for us. And I do love all three of them but all in different ways, mum well, that was obvious, I did tell her on a regular basis. Shuggsy I’d never told, but I do love the clumsy bastard, he’s tried to express his feelings before, kind of, usually on the wrong end of ten pints of Guinness when he sticks a massive paw on my head and tells me how great I am. Marlene and I have a kind of unspoken bond that’s hard to explain to someone looking in. I have told her that I love her and she me, but I never mean it in a romantic way and I never thought she did. Of course, now I was revising my memories but I would probably talk to her when she got back. Or not. I didn’t want to jeopardise the relationship we had, and certainly not when she was feeling vulnerable after leaving her father. So in a way I had all the bases covered at home. There was only one kind of love I didn’t have and I thought I didn’t want or need it. Everyone has a yearning for something, in Shuggsy’s case it was normally food or beer, Marlene wanted to give up her tedious job and become an artist or a writer full time and me? Well, I just wanted to get by with a minimum of fuss, I didn’t feel like I needed anything else in my life, least of all a relationship with anyone outside my circle of three.

But someone, or rather, something did, and that something was currently residing behind the toaster.

“If you think lucky you will be lucky!” Shuggsy said, from the other side of the kitchen.
“Mm?” I muttered, looking up from the paper to see Shugs clutching the self-help book that the guy with the dead wife had given me.
“Bloody hell, listen to this; ‘Lucky people focus on the things in their lives that are working for them. They are aware of their failures but quickly move on. They continue doing what works and QUICKLY discard anything that is not,” Shuggsy went on, “what a load of bullshit!” He lowered his voice for the last word, in case mum happened to be listening from her bedroom. Shugs had obviously been in search of something else to toast and had decided to look at what he had found lurking behind the toaster, before he slotted it in. Seeing that it was inedible, he tossed it onto the kitchen table before raiding the bread-bin and exclaiming upon finding two sweet waffles, still just in date. I idly picked up the book and opened it, skipping past the introduction and Mr Pube Head Mattinson’s write-up. The introductory chapter didn’t promise any more than the excerpts Shuggsy had read out.
* Lucky people always seem to believe that something good is about to happen.
* Lucky people see the good even in situations that others might see as bad or troubling.
* Lucky people operate out of a belief in abundance. There is no scarcity of luck or opportunity. They do not believe that by them being "lucky", that it takes anything away from anyone else. They also believe that when other people are lucky that it takes nothing away from them. They enjoy other people's success.
* Lucky people believe 100% that they deserve everything they get. The funny thing is that unlucky people seem to believe the same thing.’

Shuggsy joined me at the table sliding my paper out of the way to make way for his groaning breakfast plate and side plate of buttered bread.
“Whose is that anyway? Must be Marlene’s eh?” he observed. Shugs wasn’t a massive reader and was always impressed when faced with someone who was, I always tried to talk him out of this trait, you can still be a voracious reader and be thick.
“Er, no it’s mine actually. Well, it were given to me by a bloke who came in the shop.”
“Thinking of being lucky eh? That’ll make a change for you.” Shugs said as he mopped baked bean juice from his plate and dabbed the bread into the yolk of his fried egg.
“Yeah, not with this though I don’t reckon, it looks a bit wanky to me. The guy in the shop said it worked for him, but you wouldn’t have thought so looking at him.”
“Mebbe’s it’s like that thing that were in that Simpson’s ‘Treehouse of Horror’ episode when Homer buys that monkey’s paw and it just passes on bad luck to everyone who has it, but they think it’s good luck.”
“Hmm, cheers mate you really know how to buck me up.” The talk then turned to what Shugs was up to at work that day and then mum came shuffling in with her stick so I forgot about what he said. Wish I’d taken more notice now, as he often does, unconsciously, Shugs had hit the nail on the head.

We’d taken mum up to Bolton Abbey, just past Skipton in the rental car the day before. It was one of her favourite places and one of the few places that’s easily accessible with the wheelchair. It had been one of those rare Indian summer days you sometimes get in October. Afterwards, we’d come back to Skipton and had a meal in a cosy little pub before Shugs drove us back at a speed mum wasn’t entirely comfortable with, I was dozing in the front so hardly noticed. Mum had enjoyed the whole day, I could tell because she mentioned it about fifty times on the journey back, probably to cover up her fear of Shuggsy’s driving. Now it was Mondy morning and we waited for her lift back to the home, sitting in the living room with a cup of coffee. The car generally arrived around eleven o’clock and I had an arrangement with Grant to start work at noon, staying a couple of hours later to compensate. If anything we had more custom in those extra two hours with people passing on their way home but I hoped that Grant would never cotton onto this fact and decide to stay open later every night.

The car actually arrived earlier and I helped mum out to it and put her case in the boot. She seemed a little sprightlier that day, she never complained about having to go back to the home, it’s just that sometimes when we’d had a good weekend at home she was more reluctant to return. She kissed me goodbye and I watched the car as it disappeared around the corner at the end of the road. When I went back into the house, I tidied up in the kitchen, putting the dishes into soak and then went to fold the newspaper back up, cursing as the copy of Be Lucky! slid out from underneath it and landed on the floor. I picked it up and my attention was grabbed by a cheesy photograph of a well-dressed man, surrounded by braying women saluting with a champagne glass as a racehorse crossed the winning line, flanked with rather more downbeat punters ripping up betting slips. The caption read:

Lucky people really don't notice how lucky they are. They expect things to turn out the way they do. They expect themselves to have these things in their lives. It is NOT unusual for them. It is a way of life.

What a load of shite, I thought, not for the first time after reading something in this book. What did make me stop and read further though was the following page, which had obviously been left blank by the author in order for the reader to record some of the results of the techniques described in the previous chapter. On the page was some names written on the left hand side and some figures on the right. At the bottom was a total of the numbers which came to 1,250. Over the page was a similar set of names and numbers this time totalling 3,472. The names didn’t mean much to me, but I deduced that they were racehorses, given the proliferation of names ending in ‘Boy’ and ‘Lady’. What really made me look again was that the two pages had been written over just two days. A comment at the bottom simply said ‘see page fifty two’. I turned there straight away, the promise of easy money suddenly making me like Guy Mattinson a whole lot more.

As I walked into the bookies three doors down from the Book Exchange later that morning, I wondered what the hell I was doing. Funnily enough for a sport-hating geek I had actually been into other bookmaker’s shops quite a few times. Da used to take me on a Saturday if he wasn’t working and mum was out shopping or something to ‘put a couple of lines on’ as he put it. Generally, this meant hanging around for a couple of boring hours whilst the nags that da had saddled with the enormous responsibility of his wager laboured around a track and limped home some distance behind the winner. His occasional winners actually made him more melancholy and a few times he actually got as emotional as I’d ever seen him. He never was much of an animal lover but he’d been brought up near a racehorse trainer’s stables in Waterford and had spent some time there as a boy, dreaming of becoming a jockey before a growth spurt in puberty had put paid to those ambitions. One of the last times I accompanied him to the bookies was also the only time I saw him cry in public when the Irish horse Dawn Run won the Cheltenham Gold Cup. The whole clientele of the bookies seemed to have backed the horse and even though da had only won about sixty quid he was clutching complete strangers and weeping as if he’d owned the bloody thing. He sobbed three months later when the news came through that Dawn Run had been killed in France after falling but that was in the house. I don’t think he’d ever even cried when he’d pulled dead kids out of burning houses but he was a contradiction in that way, his professional life was one thing that he coped with by gallows humour and getting drunk but tell him about a dead horse that he’d never even met and he was inconsolable for days.
Anyway, armed with the advice from the book and the passage that the guy-with-the-dead-wife (I wished I’d taken some ID now, if only so I would know what to call him) had underlined, I had withdrawn twenty pounds from my account and was now preparing to use ‘my gut instinct’ and ‘visualise my selection crossing the line first’ whilst sticking a pin in the copy of the Sporting Life on the bookies’ wall. If I lost my money I was going to lose the book as well, but if I walked away with a few quid, well I might give it another go. The hours spent in similar establishments with da hadn’t been totally wasted and even though I’d never put a bet on since he’d won on Dawn Run, I knew what I was doing at least. There were the usual selection of dossers and work-dodgers inhabiting the shop, and the air was heavy with the familiar miasma of old bloke’s piss and hand-rolled fags. I selected a chair slightly away from the fug so I wouldn’t contract lung cancer in the few minutes it took to put a bet on and pulled out a betting slip to record my selections. It was easier to use the gut instinct technique than the visualisation thing because it was hard to imagine my nags that I’d never set eyes on running at some racecourse I’d never seen. My selections ended up being based on the flimsiest associations. I chose one called Helloitsme because it was named after a Todd Rundgren song, another called Hands Solo even despite the awful pun, an odds on favourite called Beehive Boy (because of our local), and a twenty to one shot called Marlene’s Choice for the obvious reasons. I couldn’t visualise that one coming in anywhere but near the rear of the field but I hedged my bets, literally, by putting them together in a Lucky 15. Bet that surprised you didn’t it, I did tell you that I was paying attention when I was with da, and being a teenage nerd I was interested in the mathematics of the betting process. Basically it meant that I had betted on all my horses singly, plus four doubles (if Helloitsme won, the winnings went on Beehive Boy and so on for all combinations), four trebles (same as a double but covering three races) and one accumulator which meant that all four selections needed to win. It amounted to fifteen separate bets, in essence, but meant that I had more chances of winning even if not all of my horses won. Also, if only one horse won, they would double the starting price. I had no expectations of winning even more than my stake back, but as I placed the bet, I could almost feel da at my back patting me on the head and urging me on. It felt strange. Then I went to work and forgot about the bet until I got home and found the slip in my wallet and checked the results on Teletext. Minutes later I grabbed a stunned Shuggsy and dragged him out to the Beehive for a pint and stuck a malt whisky in front of him to chase it down. All four of my horses had won and I had relieved the bookies of seven thousand, two hundred and forty five pounds.

I didn’t go mad with the winnings, well, not after that night in the Beehive when I stood everyone in the place a drink. Thankfully, it being a Monday night there was only the two old boys who came in every night playing cribbage, Tony, who sat at the bar nearly every night making two pints last four hours (he accepted a large brandy off me though I noted) and Amanda the barmaid who had a soft spot for Shuggsy and came over for a chat when it was quiet. I was originally going to tell her that it was Shugs who had had a tickle on the horses, but he’s far too honest to keep up any kind of pretence for long and would have let it slip. It only leads to further confusion I find, so it was me who got Amanda’s hundred watt smile as she took her drink.
After a few pints, I’d brought up the possibility of buying a car. Even though neither Marlene or myself could drive, it would be handy as a runabout for Shugs to get us to the supermarket and he could use it to get to work during the week as well. Then, if we needed it, the car would be there to take mum or ourselves out at weekends. Surprisingly though, the big man wasn’t too keen on the idea. Eventually, after a couple more Guinesses I teased it out of him. Although I had no Shuggsy since primary school, during our teens he had discovered drinking and had started hanging out with some lads from an estate a couple of miles from our house. During this time, I suspect that he got into trouble with the law a few times, his slowness and honesty getting him into more messes than sharper-witted and faster-talking lads found themselves in. There was also hints that he’d experimented with drugs, nothing too heavy, just a bit of weed and some speed as far as I could gather, but drugs really didn’t agree with Shuggsy, and he definitely became more aggressive and paranoid, which wasn’t like him at all, and for a while Marlene and me got a bit fed up with him. It all worked out in the end, when he left school and started earning he dropped these losers and the drugs and reverted to type. I sound like a right dullard, and I apologise if I do, I have tried pot a couple of times but it didn’t do anything for me, perhaps I’m just too boring and it only brought me up to a normal level and had no additional effect. Marlene is even worse than me, she tried a puff of someone’s joint once and nearly choked herself in an effort not to inhale and now she sticks to white wine and not to excess either. I don’t know if you’ve seen the film ‘Dazed and Confused’, it was Richard Linklater’s first film as director and features Ben Affleck’s first appearance as an ‘actor’, but don’t be too hard on it, it’s one of those American high school ensemble films where not a lot happens, but is still pretty enjoyable for all that. Anyway, amongst all your usual party-hearty cliché jocks and cheerleaders, there’s three friends who spend nearly the entire film, driving around debating whether they should go to the end-of-year party or beer-blast or whatever the Septics call it. Not surprisingly they’re the geeks of the school and are driving around in a Honda or something while everyone else are in pick-ups or Chrysler Bastards or whatever. Of course, we immediately identified with these nerds and cheer whenever they come in. So now I was proposing to finally get our own Honda to go cruising in, I was a little disappointed that Shugs wasn’t enthusiastic. He finally revealed the reason after much cajoling, he’d once crashed a car he’d been joyriding in and legged it before the cops caught up with him.
“Yeah, but you didn’t have a licence then did you?” I reasoned.
“Aye, but I reckoned they’d know it were me.”
“How were they going to do that, did you have a camera on the dashboard or summat?” I asked.
“No but they would know it were stolen and they’d know who were nicking cars on the estate.”
“Yeah but they haven’t caught up with you since have they, I think after nearly twenty years the cops would have dropped you off the most wanted list.” I said. It was like pulling teeth sometimes, honestly.
“S’pose so but I don’t like driving that much,” Shugs said morosely. He was starting to get on my wick now.
“You were alright at the weekend, anyhow I’ll be paying for it all, the only thing is it’d be in your name and that. Plus you’d have to get a peaked hat!”
“Eh? What for like?” Jesus.
“Well if you’re going to chauffeur us around you’ll want to look the part won’t you,” I said, draining my pint and standing up to go for a burst.
“Aye, alright then. Sorry for being a mardy bastard George, ye’re a good lad.”
Thankful for Shuggsy’s ringing endorsement I went for a slash and garnered another pair of pints on the way back. I hoped that actually buying the car wasn’t going to be as hard work.

It wasn’t, funny the effect that the words ‘we’re paying cash’ have on a second hand car salesman. I had originally decided to buy from someone private but as neither myself or Shuggs really knew what we were looking for, we didn’t one to be ripped off with a ringer or something. In the end, we plumped for a dealers that had been going for as long as we’d lived in town so the chances were they weren’t going to take us for more than a test-ride. I’d budgeted three thousand for the lot, including insurance so we ended up having to compromise, and ended up with a Fiesta, which wasn’t either of our first choice, but the insurance was reasonably OK given that Shugs didn’t have any no-claims history. He looked a bit daft crammed into the driver’s seat, but with the seat pushed right back he could manage to reach the pedals alright. We had a couple of days to get used to the car, before Marlene rang from California sounding much brighter and telling us that she was flying home Thursday night, and would be at the airport early Friday morning. She sounded a little non-plussed when I told her that we’d pick her up but then went onto say her dad was home and settled in so she felt able to leave him with a clear conscience. I checked her arrival time and the terminal number and rang off feeling much better. I told Shuggsy who was made up as well, I think he was glad she was coming home if only because he was sick of the meagre portions I served up. Marlene always dished up huge meals when she did the cooking chores and of a better variety than my meat, veg and spud variants. Shugs wasn’t a fussy eater but when Marlene put a plate of her seafood risotto or Moroccan chicken in front of him, he gourmandised as if he was dining at the Ivy or somewhere.

I’m aware now that I promised some sort of explication of some of the more enigmatic things I’ve been alluding to earlier. Well, deep breath, here goes. I just hope I don’t lose to many of you here. Not because it’s difficult, it’s just, well, kind of weird. Just be thankful you’re not the one living with it.

I first got into trouble with the Dream Police long before Shuggsy had his first brushes with the real law. It would be convenient to suggest I first had trouble after da left, but it was happening some years before then. Ok, perhaps it was around puberty which would give some psychologists an easy way out. I have considered some kind of therapy over the years but since I learned to control their appearances I’ve been much better. I’m finding it hard enough to explain it here without being charged forty quid an hour for the pleasure anyway, so consider this psychoanalysis on the cheap. I only call them the Dream Police because, as the quick-witted amongst you will have already gathered, they only appear when I’m asleep. Just lately I’ve had the suspicion that they’ve managed to break that invisible barrier but that might just be my paranoia. There’s no way of predicting when they will come for me either, I’m not even aware that I’m dreaming sometimes when they appear. The closest thing I can come up with to describe what happens is Big Brother (the ‘1984’ version not the shite-awful Channel 4 programme). It’s like they know everything that I’m thinking, doing, yearning for, dreading or hoping for. Yeah, I know what you’re thinking now, because I’ve thought it as well; this is going to become One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest with me ending up bouncing off the walls in Rampton. Well, you’re going to be disappointed, it hasn’t come to that. I remember the first time they came to me though, it was as if I couldn’t wake up and I can still feel the deep dread I had for days after it happened. In the intervening years, the anxiety I feel has lessened, but when I know they’re coming I can still relapse into some sort of coma in an effort to escape and it takes me at least an hour on waking to realise I’m conscious. For the first few times I was virtually catatonic in bed and you can imagine the problems that caused when I was supposed to be getting out of bed to go to school. Mum became quite skilful at ringing my form tutor and explaining my absences, but for some reason never sought medical help. Da thought going to the ‘quack’ was a sign of weakness for some reason and was always proud to announce that he’d never had a day sick in his twenty year fire fighting career, like he deserved some kind of fucking medal for it. So, I’ve basically had to face the Dream Police alone. And you wonder why I’ve never had any sort of relationship with a girl. I just know that if I spent the night with someone they’d come for me and I couldn’t face them the next day. The closest anyone has been was when I slept in Marlene’s room one night on the floor after we stayed up to watch all the Star Wars films on video. I had a visit from them (probably brought on from the Stormtrooper overdose) and was apparently thrashing around in my sleep, Marlene just thought it was a run-of-the-mill nightmare but was perturbed when I was still having it an hour later. She’d become apprehensive when she couldn’t wake me and was on the verge of calling an ambulance when I lay on my back with my eyes open but still remained in a stupor. When I finally came round she was kneeling next to me, breaking her heart because she thought I’d died. Of course, I played the big man and said I didn’t want to talk about it, but she was quiet around me for weeks after and eventually asked me what had happened. I told her, but I’m not sure she was totally convinced. Can’t say as I blame her, it sounds pretty screwed up to me and I’m sure you’re questioning my sanity right now. Well, I won’t mention it again for a while, just pretend it’s not happened if you like, believe me if it happens again, I’ll be sure and let you know.

Marlene was suitably impressed when her ‘taxi’ turned up at the airport. She thought it was a rental car at first and wanted to know the truth when I told her about my bit of luck. In the end I had to show her the betting return slip to convince her and even then I think she thought I was making it up as some elaborate hoax to make her feel better after what she’d been through. So I took us all out for a meal which would have been described in comics as slap-up. I always wondered why it was called that, if anyone had slapped me up at the end of four courses and coffee I would have definitely done a Mr Creosote and filled a few buckets. She looked good, sort of tanned, although Marlene didn’t really go brown, just a strange shade of hint of orange, the only sign that she’d been exposed to the Californian sun was the hundreds of freckles which had broken out on her face and arms. She had a glow to her, which I partly put down to having seen that her dad was recovering and the break which had certainly done her good, even though the circumstances were not the best.

Things were obviously going too well, so fate decided to lend a hand by screwing our lives up again. Only this time it wasn’t the Dream Police, but the real police.
You’ve already gathered that Shuggsy has been a bit of a boy in the past, he still thinks of himself as a ne’er-do-well I guess, but he hasn’t been in real trouble with the law for years, since his joy-riding days in fact. So when the phone rang and a female voice announced herself as PC Birch and said she had an Allan Burns on the line wanting to speak with me, my first thought was that he was having a laugh. I actually said something like, ‘come on Shugs stop pissin’ around’, but he sounded really worried, his voice low and shaky.
“George, I’m in a wee bit of bother. Can you do us a favour?” he said. He didn’t or couldn’t tell me much during our short conversation but it transpired that he had been arrested and charged with breaking and entering, possession of drugs and being in possession of stolen property. My first job was to sort him out with a solicitor, he could have had a legal aid duty solicitor, but seeing as I still had a bit of my winnings left, I got in touch with the solicitor who had sorted out the transfer of mum’s house to me and he recommended a colleague. After a night and most of the rest of the next day spent in the cells, and a brief court appearance, the solicitor managed to negotiate bail which I stood surety for on production of the car log book and house deeds as security, then Shuggsy was released into the custody of the solicitor. It was only when a very contrite Shuggsy was dropped off at the house that I got the full story out of him. Marlene was also home and we sat on opposite sides the sofa as he told us the complete sorry tale.

Turns out that Shugs had got talking to a bloke in the Primrose, who was impressed with the big man’s size and strength and said he could put some work his way if he was interested. All it would involve would be some driving and some waiting around while the bloke made some calls, for which he would give Shuggs two hundred and fifty quid a trip, cash in hand.
Shugs reckoned the bloke, who he only knew as Tony, had said it was all legit, it was just that some of the characters he dealt with a bit unsavoury and having someone of Shuggsy’s stature around would persuade them to deal with Tony without any nonsense. Also Tony reckoned he’d picked up a driving ban, nothing too serious, just a year for being a wee bit over the limit. By now a few alarm bells would probably be ringing in mine, and any other but the most naïve berk’s brain. Unfortunately Shuggsy was that naïve berk and he’d agreed to the plan. The first couple of trips went off without a hitch apparently and only took around an hour each, an hour which Shuggsy would only have spent in the Primrose anyway. The trip that ended in disaster started with Tony belling Shuggsy’s mobile and asking him to meet him at a shop on the other side of town. Shuggs had driven up there in our Fiesta, but thankfully had parked it some distance away in a multi storey car park, where it remained now. When Shuggs knocked on the door, it was answered by a spotty youth who had motioned Shuggsy in. Tony was in the back of the shop, which was abandoned and didn’t look as if it had been open for business for years. He was counting wads of tatty looking notes and peeled off a ream and tossed it towards Shuggs and said it was an advance because it was going to be a long night and he’d be on overtime. The youth had sniggered at that but Shuggs hadn’t been unduly bothered. Once Tony had finished counting the cash, he’d wedged it into a holdall and thrown the bag at Shuggsy and told him to follow him out the back. Parked up was a knackered transit van with painted out windows, Tony had slid up into the passenger seat and tossed the keys to Shuggs to drive. For the next three hours they’d driven out into the countryside, then back into town via some back roads, whilst Tony sat and made calls on his mobile. He’d never mentioned any names or places but seemed content to carry on with the circuitous route that he was directing Shuggs on. Eventually he seemed satisfied that they’d travelled far enough and directed Shuggsy to an industrial estate that I’d never heard of, just north of town. They’d pulled up on some wasteland, while Tony had made another call, this time mentioning Jesters and Crowns, whatever they were. Then he told Shuggsy to wait in the driver’s seat whilst Tony disappeared into the back of the van. Shuggs hadn’t turned round but after a lot of rustling and zipping, Tony had reappeared with two more sports bags, one of which he passed to Shuggs and told him to follow him to a small prefab type hut at the far end of the land they’d parked on. Once there, Tony had produced a key and unlocked the door, and pulled a torch out to light their way. Apparently, Tony had then instructed Shuggsy to unfold some step ladders and climb up them in the middle of the hut. Then he’d had to remove two of the ceiling tiles which revealed a false roof structure. Then Tony had told him to crawl up into the roof space and wait while Tony joined him. Shuggsy had got up into the space, not without some difficulty, but then as he sat their in the dark, he heard a bump and what sounded like the door opening. He’d waited for a couple of minutes but all was quiet, then he’d shuffled back to the opening. He’d swung his legs back down the ladder to investigate, and was met at the bottom by two uniformed policeman who promptly nicked him. Tony had scarpered, leaving Shuggsy banged to rights on the premises with a stolen van containing a holdall half full of dirty cash outside. Before Shuggsy had recovered from this setback, two plain clothes officers emerged from the hut carrying two bin bags which contained what were believed to be ecstasy tablets, “bloody hundreds of them.” Then he was read his rights and whisked from the scene in a police car to the police station where he’d phoned me.

At the end of his story, I blew my cheeks out with the stress of hearing the inevitable ending and Marlene put a consoling arm round Shuggsy. The poor bloke looked abject. I was struggling to find a silver lining, as it really looked like Shuggsy was going take the fall for this one, unless we could find this Tony character. I volunteered to go to the Primrose with Shuggs to ask around, whilst Marlene rang the solicitor to make an appointment for Shuggs to speak to him and get his story straight before the next court appearance which had been set for two month’s time. We both agreed that if Shuggsy was to play the dumb card, he might get away with being the unwitting accomplice, despite the fact that he’d been caught hands on. If we could find Tony and get the police onto him, maybe he would get the more severe punishment as the ringleader, always supposing the police believed that he was the organiser. Personally speaking, I thought they wouldn’t have any doubts once they’d spoken to Shuggsy, he was hardly capable of coming up with a plan to buy and deal drugs, and besides, he had been straight for so long it wouldn’t have even occurred to him to do it.
Our enquiries at the pub drew a blank. Shuggsy did most of the talking which I was glad about, the clientele of the Primrose were a uniformly dodgy set of shifty blokes who would have seen right through Grant’s ‘geezer’ act straight away. Of course, Tony hadn’t been in and the barman wasn’t even sure where he lived, although he suggested a couple of areas where he might live or hang out. Predictably, no-one knew his surname. We returned home, with Shuggs in an even morose mood than when we had set off. I could hardly blame him, the future looked none too bright for him from where we stood, and unless we could come up with something soon, Shuggsy was looking at jail time and plenty of it.

I was knackered when I left home for the Book Exchange the next morning, I hadn’t slept very well, even after I’d gone to bed around two, I was turning over what had happened to Shuggs in my head, trying to work out some way of getting him off the charge, or at least lessening his punishment in some way by finding a mitigating circumstance. It seemed like every time I got tantalisingly close to a possible solution, a counter argument presented itself. I didn’t know the legal position well enough to speculate on what a jury would think, to be honest, I didn’t even know if it would go to a trial by jury. I did hope the solicitor would be able to get him acquitted before then. You read every day in the papers about all sorts of scumbags who were obviously banged to rights, getting off on a technicality and walking out of the court with a big shit-eating grin on their guilty faces. Although I had no doubt that Shuggsy was only guilty of being dumb in a built up area, I don’t know whether a jury would take into consideration his previous reasonably good record and his character. Maybe I could stand in the dock and give him a good character reference, but then again would they necessarily believe a second-hand bookseller who had known the defendant nearly all his life and lived with him for the last six years?

I must have dozed off sometime around four, but it only seemed as if I had closed my eyes for a second when the alarm went off. I staggered around, getting ready for work, and bumped into Shuggsy on the landing.
“Are you alright big man?” I asked. He looked worse than I felt, and his eyes were red and puffy as if he’d been crying.
“Ach, not too bad, didn’t sleep so good though.”
“I’m not surprised, maybe you should get something to help you.”
“I’ve had enough of drugs George, I’d rather get drunk or something,” he said.
“We’ll do that tonight if you want,” I said, “it’s Friday tomorrow, only one day to the weekend.”
“That’d be good. Look, thanks for all you did last night, I don’t know what I’d have done without you.” For a moment, I thought he was going to hug me, and I took an involuntarily step backwards, but instead he shuffled off towards the bathroom. I made a mental note to ask Marlene to make sure he didn’t do anything daft, she could talk him out of anything.

At the shop, Grant was thankfully conspicuous by his absence. Sean told me he’d gone off ‘on a mission’. With any luck it would be some sort of mission impossible that would take him away from the place for months, even years and I could have as much XTC on the shop stereo as I wanted. In fact, I’d just slotted ‘Skylarking’ in for it’s first outing for several months, when she walked in.

I thought I’d stopped breathing for about the first five minutes she was in the place, then I realised I had actually stopped. She was standing with her back to me, looking at the travel section, but every so often would turn round slightly, as if checking that she was being watched, a habit I find intensely annoying in women normally, but I felt as if I could watch her all day and not be bored. She had quite short, dark hair and was wearing a dark blue denim jacket over black pants. I was straining to see her hands though. Don’t ask me why, but I’ve got a bit of a thing about women’s hands, mostly their palms, but the whole hand package is important to me. I’m not bothered if they’re large or small, as long as they have soft skin on the palms. I’m not too keen on veiny backs of hands, and hair is a definite no-no, unless it’s that downy sort of fair hair. I’m not too fussed on rings either, especially showy or chunky rings, and I can’t see the point in thumb or index finger rings, and obviously wedding or engagement rings were a little off-putting, but generally I’m cool with most things. Oh and not chewed nails, either, probably because I chew mine. When she did turn round and make her way towards the register, carrying a copy of Tim Moore’s excellent account of a trip to the Arctic Circle, “Frost On My Moustache”. I prepared to congratulate her on her choice, but for some reason could only manage something between a squeak and a croak, when she put the book on the counter and said “I’ll take this please.” OK, so I’ve also got a thing about women with North Eastern accents and hers was from somewhere around Durham, I guessed. Hands and Durham accents, that’s not too weird is it? I could think of worse kinks. She looked at me, as if I’d coughed something up on the book, and asked how much she owed. I looked in the inside cover (one pound fifty) then made the error of starting to tell her why the book is called what it is, then realised that it had something to do with a seal and oral sex. So I clammed up and just asked her for the money. Now she was certainly going to think I was some kind of unholy moron. She proffered a five pound note and I accidentally, honestly, brushed her palm when giving her change. She didn’t even give me a second glance as she picked up the book and put in her bag. She didn’t even say thanks, but gave me a tight, non-mirthful smile and then walked out of the shop. I thought about asking her for ID, but couldn’t work out why she should have to give it to me. Anyway, it was too late, she was gone and so was I.

Marlene rang me later that afternoon and told me that Shuggsy had come home early and then gone out for a walk. I stopped short of asking of he’d said where he was going because I was aware that we were beginning to sound like his parents. She sounded a bit down, so on a whim, I asked her to meet me after my shift for a drink and to get dressed up a bit. I’d bell Shuggs later on his mobile and get him to come into town as long as he wasn’t walking back to Glasgow. Then I rooted out Be Lucky! and turned to the chapter on luck in gambling again. Frustratingly there wasn’t much in the way of specific advice but I did take no notice of one passage that bloke-with-dead-wife had made a point of underlining twice. It said;
* Lucky people are highly aware of opportunity. They know a deal quickly when they see one and take FULL advantage of it. Sometimes by acting too quickly they do make mistakes. The mistakes they make are easily outweighed by the successes they have. Let your successes guide your hand and make every situation turn to your advantage, winning is an easy habit to get into.
I wasn’t sure how it was going to work in the situation I had in mind, but I was going to give it a try anyway.

In the taxi home, Marlene was laughing her head off and wouldn’t stop, and it wasn’t just the champagne that she’d put away. For some reason, the fact that I’d walked away from the casino with just over four grand in cash was amusing her. Can’t think why. Even Shuggsy cracked a smile and kept patting me on the back. I was quite calm, surprisingly. If I’d thought about the events that had led here, I couldn’t say why I’d been lucky, it had just seemed to happen. Most of the winnings had come from Blackjack, but I’d also won on the Roulette and taken a jackpot from one of the fruit machines. My original plan had only been to try and distract the other two from their woes, but it had turned out better than I thought. Marlene had membership of the casino from a raffle prize she’d won at her works Christmas do, but had never taken it up until now. When I’d put the plan to her she didn’t seem that keen either but a couple of glasses of wine had changed her mind and now she was planning on another visit. I wasn’t so sure that was a good idea, the management weren’t exactly congratulating me on my good fortune as I cashed the chips in, they weren’t unfriendly, it’s just that I got the impression they wouldn’t welcome me back with open arms. I half expected some goon to ask me to accompany him to a back room and give me a working over, but Shuggsy reckoned I’d been watching too many films. In the end, we jumped in the first taxi we saw outside and as I looked out of the rear window, there weren’t any shady guys in dinner jackets, running up the road after us and shaking their fists at our departure. I was slightly disappointed to be honest. I gave the driver a tip he was made up with when we reached home and we fell out of the cab, still drunk with success and casino spumante. I’d already decided what I was going to with at least some of the winnings, in a sort of good karma gesture, I’d decided to hire a private detective to find Tony. I wasn’t going to tell Shuggs or Marlene, I didn’t want to get their hopes up, but as I lay in bed with the room spinning slightly, I imagined their faces when a Philip Marlowe type handed us a dossier with surveillance photos and an address for Tony that we could pass to the police. Now I knew I really had been watching too many films.

Tuesdays and Wednesdays I worked at the Sub Stop from four till ten. As I said before I don’t know why I did it, it was a hangover from the days from when mum was first diagnosed and we were struggling to meet the mortgage payments on the combined wages of my take-home from the Book Exchange (which were minimum earnings, just about) and mum’s then job as a dinner lady at the local primary school. The Sub Stop had just opened it’s first franchise in town and had advertised for ‘sandwich artists’. I had my doubts that Sub sandwiches were going to catch on in Britain, the business had originated in the north west of the USA but that didn’t necessarily mean it would transfer to the north west of England, even if the climates were similar. Still, the wages were reasonable and they were OK to work for, even if the repetitivity of the tasks you had to carry out was a little wearing. Basically, there were four tasks you could manage, sandwich assembly, cash till, bakery and kitchen or shop floor, but in practice these roles mixed and matched depending on how busy the shop was. And I’m boring myself just talking about it, as Tim quite rightly commented in The Office when he was talking about his dull life.

It was around halfway through my shift, when the door burst open and three girls swept in, giggly and capricious with drink. Normally, I would have tried to slink into the kitchen at this point but there was only me and Bernice, a German girl working her way through college, in the shop. The other guy who was working, Ashton, was out the back having a fag break. However, when I positioned myself in front of the bread selection and looked closer at our potential customers, I realised with a start that one of them was the girl from the Book Exchange. She hadn’t even registered my presence but was debating the choices that were displayed on the menu board above my head. I was glad that I’d decided to wear my contacts that night and done something with my hair for a change rather than just let it hang down as it normally did. Eventually, one of the girls, a brassy looking blonde in a halter neck top approached the counter and asked for a combination of fillings that we didn’t do. I tried to correct her without seeming supercilious and suggested a couple of other alternatives. She eventually settled for Teriyaki Red Onion and Chicken on Granary, one of the most fiddly sandwiches we did, because I had to warm up the chicken in the microwave. Meanwhile, the other girl had decided she wanted the same, which left ‘my girl’ dithering. I decided to put Be Lucky! into practice, while I waited for the chicken to ping in the microwave.
“Is there anything I can get you?” I asked politely.
“Er, I’m not sure,” she said. She sounded vaguely foreign now, certainly not the northern accent I’d originally thought she had whilst in the bookshop anyway. “What’s the ‘Cold Cut Trio’ like?”
“It’s ham, turkey and smoked salami, usually with honey mustard sauce but you can have whichever sauce you like.”
“Hmm, OK, I’ll take that then.”
“Which bread would you like?” You’ll understand I wasn’t normally this polite or patient with customers, and I think the other two girls had picked up on it, especially as the microwave had already pinged. I scooped up the chicken and scattered it haphazardly onto two granary subs, before sliding them on towards Bernice to add the salad and sauces. Then I paid full attention to the girl.
“I’ll have the Parmesan Oregano, please.” I was picking up French, or maybe Swiss, maybe it was the way she pronounced parmesan.
“Did you enjoy the book?” I ventured.
“I’m sorry?” she asked, quizzically.
“From the Book Exchange. It was me. Tim Moore.” I said.
“Oh, hello, er, Tim,” she held out her hand for me to shake, I couldn’t help but smile and I took her hand, even though I had one of those hygienic gloves on, but I didn’t offer the one I’d doled the chicken out with. Her hand was very soft I was interested to note.
“Sorry, no I’m not Tim, my name’s George. You bought a copy of Tim Moore’s book from the bookshop I work in last week.”
“Oh, I am sorry,” she giggled. She was unbelievably cute, my stomach did a funny flip-over and I had to make sure I wasn’t piling on more chicken than I should onto her sub. Damn right I can multi-task, baby. “My name’s Astrid, and yes I am enjoying the book. It’s very, um, humourous.” I noticed out of the corner of my eye that her friends were paying for their Subs and nudging each other. Good job the time and motion people weren’t in, we were supposed to have each sub assembled in a minute or less, from start to finish. I rattled through the salad choices myself (she went for tomatoes, olives and green peppers) and the sauce (plain mayo). Bernice didn’t look that impressed that I’d transgressed into her area, being Teutonic she obviously thought it was her right to cross other people’s borders not vice versa. I handed Astrid her sandwich and tried to think of some way to finish without being crap. As it was I looked into her eyes, as Guy had told me to do and just said “enjoy the rest of the book.”
“Thank you,” she said, “and I’ll enjoy the sandwich also.” Then she turned to catch up with her braying chums, one of whom was taking the piss saying “enjoy the rest of your book” in a comedy northern accent.
“Die soon,” I muttered in her wake. Bernice looked up sharply but I don’t think she’d heard me properly. I was left wondering how on earth I was going to engineer another chance meeting with Astrid. God knows how Be Lucky! was going to help me out there.

It was another two days before I got round to looking up a detective to engage for Shuggsy. There were two in Yellow Pages but I eventually rang one that I found in the local rag’s classified section who advertised himself as having thirty years experience in the police. At least he might have an idea of the legal standpoint as well as being able to track down Tony. However, when I presented myself at his anonymous office, which was situated above a dentist’s, my first impressions were not good. I’d been hoping for Van Der Valk, but the bloke who shook my hand was more like Van Morrison. Ted Churchill was in his early sixties I guessed, but the gin blossoms on his nose and face must have prematurely aged him. His wispy hair and ill-fitting suit hardly added to the template of the kind of hard-nosed badass that was going to kick doors in all over town and bring me Tony’s gonads served on a silver platter either. After I’d explained the scenario to him, he sat back in his chair and considered the facts for a while. I imagined that he’d usually taken the role of indifferent cop in interviews, sitting in a smog of fag smoke and self-satisfaction until the accused got so anxious they confessed everything. To be honest he gave me the creeps, but he outlined the kind of enquiries he would carry out on my behalf and asked me a few supplementary questions about Tony and his relationship to Shuggsy, who I’d referred to as Allan throughout. All we really had to go on was a description of Tony, where he drank and some possible areas where he lived and the mobile phone number he’d given Shuggsy. To his credit, Churchill assured me he was quietly confident he’d be able to track Tony down with the minimum of fuss and time, which was just as well seeing as his fees were two hundred notes a day, plus expenses. I always wondered if that expense thing was just a scam to hike up their prices, but Churchill said that all expenses were itemised. After he’d given me his plan to identify Tony, he gave me a few examples of some of the crims he’d nicked whilst he worked for the police illustrated with some anecdotes that he’d obviously trotted out more than a few times with the boys in blue over many pints. Then he shook my hand and showed me out of the office. It was only as I stepped back out onto the street via the stairs at the side of the dentist office that I realised that he hadn’t asked me what I was going to do with the information after he’d found Tony or made any comment on Shuggsy’s innocence or lack of it. I supposed for two hundred quid a day he could afford not to be too interested in the ethical arguments in the case. It probably had more to do with the fact that I didn’t look like the sort of bloke who was going to go on some sort of revenge mission with a shooter. Maybe if he found Tony in double quick time, I could get him to track Astrid down as well. As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry on either score.

“No way. I’m not having it. There’s just no way, and I’ll have money on it.” I didn’t argue with Marlene that often, but when we did, it was generally over some trivia or other. This time I was very confident I was in the right though.
“Let’s have this right then. You’re telling me that David Bowie does the backing vocals in The Waterboys song ‘The Whole of the Moon’, yeah?” I said, laughing as Marlene went all defensive.
“That’s it, not all of it though, just that bit at the end.”
“OK, the bit that goes ‘You. Saw. The. Whole. Of. The. Moo-oon.’” I sang, in an approximation of the song. Admittedly it does sound a little Bowie-esque but there was no way I was having it.
“Right, let’s prove it then,” Marlene said confidently and marched off to her room to fire up the internet. I loved it when she thought she was right, I just wound her up more. After a few fruitless Google searches though, we were no closer to knowing and since neither of us owned the album, we couldn’t check the provenance. Marlene had heard the song on the radio at work and came home obviously thinking she could tempt me into one of our fruitless altercations. And she was right. Previously I’d lost an argument about who played one of the characters in Fast Times At Ridgemont High (another excellent American high school movie, check it out. And no it wasn’t Phoebe Cates, I wouldn’t have got her wrong, it was her mate who lost her virginity in the swimming pool changing room. I swore it was Mary Stuart Masterson. It’s Jennifer Jason Leigh.) Anyway, Marlene decided the only way to settle it, short of ringing Dave Bowie himself, was to order the Best of The Waterboys from Amazon. With the conflict at an impasse, we went back into the living room. Then I really made a mistake. I told Marlene about Astrid. At first, she didn’t seem too bothered, in fact she dismissed my story as mere coincidence but then got shirty when I described how cute she was.
“Where do you think she’s from with a name like Astrid?” I said
“I don’t know, Gaul?” Marlene said, flippantly.
“That’s Asterix, anyhow, there’s no such place is there?” Marlene shrugged.
“She might as well be, you’ll probably never see her again.”
“Hang on a minute, why are you getting out of your pram?” I asked, “you’re not jealous are you?” Shit, that was a dumb thing to say.
“No, George, not jealous. Just grow up will you.” With that she picked her book up and stalked off to the stairs. “I’m going to bed, don’t stay up fantasising all night will you?”
I can be such a dickhead sometimes. I wish I had gone to bed just then as well, but I stayed up to watch Terminator yet again on Channel 5 and when I eventually went to sleep I had a visit from the Dream Police.

At first, I couldn’t recognise the symptoms. I was back in the Sub Stop and Shuggs and Marlene were there, both eating. Then Astrid walked in, wearing an Arsenal top and jeans. That’s when I realised I was dreaming. Then I felt the familiar coldness and the fear gripped me. They seemed to be all around me, dragging me away and although I was still in the shop, none of them seemed to notice what was happening. Next, I was in a room, bright white with no visible walls, but I knew there was no way out. They were there, two of them, I couldn’t see them but they were a presence and my hands were tied behind me. Then one of the walls seemed to melt away and I saw Shuggsy being beaten by two prison guards, his face covered in blood and cowering as he tried to protect himself from his faceless captors. Then the chair I was tied to spun round ninety degrees and I was faced with a tableau of Marlene in what looked like a hospital, looking down at a body on a bed, the face covered with a sheet and wires protruding from it, a nurse hugging her as she wept uncontrollably. The chair spun again and I saw Astrid on her hands and knees, frantically scrabbling into the earth and when she looked up she had raging red eyes and talons. Then I was pushed back so I landed on the floor, crashing my head and when I looked up I was staring into the face of one of the Dream Police, only it was Ted Churchill laughing demonically while holding up an itemised receipt, which just had the words ‘removal of Tony’s head’ written on it twelve times. Finally, a window appeared and I saw mum sitting quietly in her wheelchair shaking her head slowly and holding a single red rose in her lap, the thorns pressing into the flesh of her hands. Then I knew no more until Marlene shook me awake and held me when she saw me blink, her eyes damp with fright and her body shaking against me.

I’d been screaming almost non-stop for an hour, seemingly. Marlene had been trying desperately to wake me nearly the whole time and was on the verge of ringing for an ambulance when I’d finally stopped as if I’d been switched off at the mains and just lay there deathly still, and breathing all but imperceptibly. In fact Marlene had checked my pulse and held a mirror up to my mouth just to check. What would already have been an almost intolerable situation for her was made worse because Shuggsy wasn’t in the house to help because he was working away on a job for the week, somewhere in South Wales. When I finally came round, Marlene had made us both a cup of hot sweet tea, even though she normally didn’t take sugar, and was we were now lying on top of the duvet. She was still shivering, despite the heating being on, though whether it was from the cold or the fear I couldn’t tell.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asked.
“I would if I could remember, but it’s all a bit of a blank, I don’t even know when it’s happening.”
“But you do know it happens, you told me after the last time.”
“I know, but it’s happened less lately and it’s been so long since the last one that I thought it was never going to happen again.” I said. Marlene put her hand to my cheek and stroked it.
“Poor you. I was so frightened. I think the worst thing was that you weren’t moving at all, it was like the sound was coming out of you but your mouth wasn’t moving.” I shuddered involuntarily at this.
“I know, well I don’t know, but I can imagine.” Marlene started to cry softly again. I put my tea mug down and held her again, brushing her hair out of her eyes, and trying to stroke the tears away.
“Promise me you’ll get some help George, please. I don’t ever want to go through that again,” she whispered.
“I will, I will,” I said. I didn’t know how, but I’d have to try something or I could see me having a breakdown some time soon.

Friday night, mum came home as normal, she looked tired but insisted on cooking dinner for the four of us, a full roast chicken with all the trimmings, I helped pull things out of the oven, but other than that she wouldn’t let anyone but Marlene in the kitchen. They shared a bottle of wine whilst the chicken was cooking, talking about their week, while I sat in the living room, straining to hear if Marlene mentioned anything about my attack and watching the Simpsons with Shuggsy. He was halfway through his third can of lager, having endured a slog of a journey back from Wales in a transit van with two workmates. Being back in a transit van hadn’t helped his state of mind after the incident at the industrial estate. Every time he’d spotted a police car anywhere along the carriageway he’d had to close his eyes until they’d passed it. And no, he hadn’t been driving.
The episode where Homer goes to clown school was just coming to a close, Shuggsy pissing himself laughing at the sight of Homer and Krusty on a tiny bike trying to do the loop-the-loop, when the phone rang. I strolled across to answer it, whilst Shuggs killed the volume. It was Mr Pardew, Shuggsy’s solicitor. We exchanged pleasantries then he told me he was anxious to speak with Allan. I passed the receiver to Shuggs and got half the conversation, the half that I could hear at this end. A long pause ensued where Pardew was obviously outlining something in his usual ponderous manner, punctuated only by the occasional ‘ach’ or ‘yeah’ from Shuggs.
“So what does that mean for me, Mr Pardew,” Shuggsy eventually interjected. More solicitor speak , then Shuggs leapt from his chair, punching the air. “Get in!” he exclaimed, then after a bit more from Pardew, he said “that’s great, I understand, thanks very much, thanks, bye now.” Shuggsy rang off, grinning broadly.
“Bad news then Ted,” I said, imitating the hapless Dougal from Father Ted.
“Great news George man, I might be getting off the charges. Those pills they thought were E’s. Well they’ve had them analysed and it turns out they were crap, full of aspirin and baby powder, no drugs in ‘em at all!”
“Bloody hell,” I said, “so they’ve got nothing on you then?”
“Well, there’s still the van which were stolen and the money and something called conspiracy to be knowingly involved in the supply of something contravening something but Mr Pardew reckons I’ll get away with community service or summat for that.”
“And he’s absolutely sure there’s no way they can prove it was supposed to be drugs?”
“No, he did start explaining it but he was talking in jargon a bit, didn’t really understand it, but it boils down to me not being charged with drugs possession or supply anyway.”
“That’s fantastic news big man,” I said, slapping him on the shoulder. I almost told Shuggsy about hiring the detective, but thought better of it, I didn’t want to jinx it. Marlene and mum came through after hearing the noise of Shuggsy celebrating. When we relayed the news, Marlene hugged Shuggs. It was only then that I realised that mum didn’t know about any of it, but with Marlene and Shuggsy’s help and promptings, we managed to skate round the fact that Shuggsy had been arrested for drugs possession and concocted a tale where he’d just been duped into being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Mum was very anti-drugs and it wouldn’t have been right for her to think Shuggsy was even innocently mixed up in them, sometimes discretion is the better part of valour. Mum tutted and made the right noises and then said something like “well as long as everything’s sorted out that’s the main thing.” She didn’t like anything clouding our home life. And with that we sat down to dinner and more drinks and everything was OK in our happy little family, for now anyway.

I’d always been a bit of a night-owl, no matter how early I get up, I always find myself staying up later than I probably should, not that I go out much, it usually means that I stay up watching up a film, or reading, or now that we’d got broadband, listening to some obscure radio station whilst surfing the internet. Tonight I was listening to John Peel, but via a Helsinki radio station, one of the many wonders brought to the world via technology. Funnily enough, I very rarely listened to Peel on Radio 1 but for some reason hearing him on a Finnish radio channel, made him feel even more eclectic, something I got a kick out of as if I was the only person in England hearing it. Whilst listening to some unknown band from the Isle of Wight, I picked up Be Lucky! again and flicked through it looking for some inspiration to magnetise Astrid back into my life. Once again Mr Mattinson was frustratingly ambiguous;

* Lucky people always seem to believe that something good is about to happen.
Well, yeah, I’m trying, but I need something solid, mate.

* Lucky people see the good even in situations that others might see as bad or troubling.

I doubted that Shuggsy saw that when he was locked up, or Marlene when she was on the plane out to Santa Barbara.

* 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!

I supposed that was more like it, but I couldn’t think how when I was going to get the opportunity to put into practice. The next paragraph was almost there, the bloke who had given me the book had even highlighted it;

* Visualise yourself being lucky before an important meeting or telephone call. Luck is very often a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Well, I didn’t have an important meeting scheduled and I wasn’t planning on making any telephone calls but if I could attain the prophecy of self-fulfilment, I was going to give it my best shot. I visualised Astrid walking into the Book Exchange on Monday morning, just as Peely gave Teenage Kicks another emotional spin for the people of Northern Europe.

Two things happened on Monday, which made me think that lucky things were happening. The first was a letter from Pardew’s office confirming that the more serious charges had been dropped, and inviting Shuggsy to come into talk about how they could come up with a defence for the lesser charges before his appearance at the Magistrates Court in a month’s time. Then Ted Churchill rang me just after I’d seen mum off back to Lytham. He told me that he had some interesting news and could I meet him later that day. I told him that I was working till seven but I could meet him just after that. I told him where the Book Exchange was and he named a pub just round the corner where I arranged to meet him. Oh and then Astrid came in the shop, but I’ll come to that first.

I hadn’t actually got to work when she arrived at the Book Exchange and when I did arrive, I was perturbed to see that Grant was schmoozing all over her, the oily twat. He was actually leaning against a doorway, with one foot resting against the door jamb, and he was wearing cowboy boots! She had her back to the main door, but I could tell from her body language that she wasn’t impressed. I sauntered in and took up my post behind the counter.
“Oh, hi Astrid,” I said, casually.
“Hi, er, George,” she replied, as Grant nearly shit a brick. “How are you?”
“I’m fine, alright Grant?” I tried not to smile as his face dropped, “I see you’ve met my friend, Astrid.”
“Yeah, George, just been letting her in on a few trade secrets.” I bet you had, you unctuous prick.
“Great, I bet you’ve learnt a lot eh Astrid? There’s no beginning to things that Grant knows about selling books, and I should know. I didn’t get where I am today without learning from the master,” I said. Luckily, (see I could visualise luck now just by using the force, suck on that Yoda) Grant’s mobile trilled into life at that moment and Astrid took the opportunity to prise herself away.
“Actually, I came in hoping to see you,” she said. Oh God, it was really working! “I wanted to apologise for the other night when I came to the Sub Stop with my friends. I must have seemed a bit rude.”
“No, don’t worry about it, I’d forgotten about it completely.” Liar.
“And I also wanted to see if you could recommend some other books like the one I bought from you before.” Grant was desperately trying to see how this conversation was going whilst keeping an ear on whichever chinless wonder he had on the line.
“Well, let’s see.” I came out round the counter and guided her to the travel section. Fortunately (there I go again!) I’d personally restocked it last week, so there were some reasonable choices to be had. I pulled out ‘Sean and David’s Drive Thru America’ and ‘McCarthy’s Bar’ and threw in another Tim Moore where he attempts the Tour de France solo and charged her a fiver for the lot.
“You can have them on approval, if you don’t like them you can bring them back and I’ll refund the lot.” I said, dropping my voice so Grant had no chance of hearing. She paid, and seemed to be hesitating as she put the books in her bag. Oh Christ, visualise success Kelly, what could go wrong? “Erm, I was wondering would you like to go for a drink sometime, with me, if you haven’t got anything on, sort of soon.” Stop you’re killing me!
“Yes, of course, I’d like that.” I had to stop myself sliding behind the counter there and then. We exchanged mobile numbers and I said I’d ring her later that week. She smiled, then left just before I turned into a puddle. Grant finally cut his caller off and hurried over to assess the situation and see if he could make it worse in any way. I told him to butt out and he nearly had kittens. Well, if I was on a lucky roll I might as well push it to the limit.

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 heavy tomes. 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?

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.”

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The next three days were amongst the worst in my life. Marlene’s condition 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 we go home. Before we did, I sneaked a look at Marlene lying in the intensive care bed, wires attaching her to machines, her chestnut hair billowing on the pillow and sallow skin looking for all the world like 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 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 godbye 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. He loitered in the hall way and 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 bring 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 as she was preparing to get off at her station and 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 www.be-lucky.co.uk 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.”

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.

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 equines, 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, ususally 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 satying 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. 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 it’s in connection with?”
“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 number son 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 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.

Karaoke night was in full swing and I’d supped enough to contemplate knocking out Hard To Handle when a bloke eased himself into the vacant barstool alongside me and motioned Amanda over with a folded twenty note.
“Pint of best love, and whatever this lad here’s on.” I turned, the almost familiar voice permeating through the alcohol haze. The bloke was Ted Churchill. Amanda pulled two pints and set them in front of us. “And take one for yourself, love,” he said, handing her the note.
“Cheersh,” I slurred, taking the top of the fresh pint and tipping the glass in his direction, a slop of beer raining down onto the bar towel.
“All the best,” Churchill said, tapping my pint pot with his. “Sounds like you’ve made a night of it son.”
“Aye, I’ve had a couple.”
“Couple of gallons?” Churchill drained half his own glass in one easy gulp. “Not a bad boozer, this. Can’t say as I’ve ever been in here before. Few of the lads from division used to live up this way and drank in here, mind, and said it were alright.”
“Should be OK for a bit of afters then,” I mused, “don’t suppose you’re here to scout for the retired cop’s good pub guide though are you?”
“No, I’ll give you that,” Churchill said, “just thought I’d pay you a social visit, see what your mate’s up to, the mate of Tony O’Neill’s.” There was no-one in earshot, not that anyone would care about the name, but Churchill seemed like he wasn’t too bothered about discretion.
“Dunno really, I haven’t spoken to him for a week,” I said, burping back a mouthful of ale. I hadn’t realised how pissed I was until I’d tried to communicate with someone other than Amanda, who was fluent in the language of the barfly. “He’s been away with work and hasn’t had his mobile on. Should have been back tonight like.” I regretted that, the less information I gave him the better, but drink had loosened my brain from its moorings.
“Any idea where he might be?” Churchill asked. “Look son, I’m not going to be grassing him up if that’s what you reckon, I know you probably think once a cop and all that, and I know the O’Neill murder team have been sniffing around, I just want to know what you know in case there’s any comeback on me that’s all. I’m sure you understand.” He swallowed the rest of his pint and belched with satisfaction. “Nice drop that, must have good pipes in here, and I don’t just mean that barmaid. Fancy another?” I’d barely touched my pint and shook my head. “Short then? Slide down a bit easier.”
“Alright, vodka and coke.” He gained Amanda’s attention again and ordered mine and another pint with a scotch chaser for himself.
“Any ideas then?” he asked while Amanda reached up to the optics and he admired her arse.
“Not really.” I weighed up the pros and cons of letting him on anything, as best as I could. “He’s not been himself lately, even after he got let out of court. You heard about that I suppose?”
“Yeah, suspended sentence, I’d heard a whisper.”
“Well, he didn’t seem right somehow, I thought that’d be an end of it but he was still moping about, and he were drinking in the Primrose more than usual.” I took an exploratory sip of my voddy and coke and got that warm, wet feeling in my brain which signified I was stepping up to another level of drunkenness. “I just thought he was worried about our friend who’s in hospital, but he’s hardly asked after her since he’s been away. It’s not like him really.” Churchill took a belt of his scotch, and lit a cigarette, offering me one first, I shook my head. It felt like it was squelching. I realised then I hadn’t asked him how he knew I drank in here when he didn’t even know where I lived, given that he hadn’t asked me for my address when I went to him originally. Give him his due though, he was a detective. I decided to give myself a bit of breathing space.
“’Scuse me a minute will you, I just need to drain the main vein,” I said, sliding all too literally off my stool and weaving towards the Gents. The sound of the pub crooner belting out a version of Sinatra’s That’s Life filled my head as I nearly crashed into a table. I righted myself, then became aware of my mobile buzzing in my pocket. I extricated it and peered at the display, assessing whether to answer it or not. When I saw who it was, I pressed ‘answer’ straight away, and held a finger in my spare ear, like a drunken folk singer, trying to blot out the noise. It was Shuggsy and when I finally deciphered what he was saying, he told me he was in Spain.

By two a.m. I wasn’t a pretty sight, in fact I was on a par with Dresden at the end of the war. I’d managed to palm Churchill off with some old crap and promised to ring him if and when Shuggsy contacted me, even though I’d obviously just spoken to him. The detective probably knew I was lying but I was so drunk I couldn’t have cared less. I came home not long after he’d left me in the Beehive and poured myself a large vodka and opened a can of Irn Bru to sweeten it with then promptly fallen asleep on the sofa. Sometime around eleven, Astrid had texted me saying she was about to leave to go to her hotel and she’d send me another message when she was there. I’d sent her a jumbled up load of nonsense that made me shudder with embarrassment when I reviewed my outbox the next day. It wouldn’t have been so bad if it had been the last message, but I’d sent three more of slowly degenerating quality and logic. Astrid must have known I was arseholed but hadn’t let on, God knows what she saw in me really, in fact I think I said as much in my last text to which she had simply replied ‘luv u, v sleepy now. Ciao baby. A x’. Yes, ‘luv u’, like I say, don’t know what she was doing with me, I really don’t.

So it was a very contrite George Kelly that crawled to the railway station the next morning to catch a connection to Manchester, then on to Lytham to visit mum. I was drinking Irn Bru neat now in an effort to calm my pounding head and shaky stomach, the orange liquid reputedly fashioned from girders being the hangover tonic that Shuggsy swore by. Speaking of which, the man himself had rung me back after I’d left the pub and now I could piece together what he’d told me. Turns out he’d heard from one of the blokes who drank in the Primrose that Haslam and Warwick had been in the pub asking for him whilst he’d been in Wales. The bloke had tipped him off and Shuggsy had panicked. He’d scarpered from the site and caught a train back, then picked his car up and driven back to the house, thrown some gear in the car (I hadn’t noticed anything missing, but then again, I never went in Shuggsy’s room if I could help it), then driven down to Plymouth. From there he’d caught the last ferry of the day to Santander, kipped in the car when he reached Spain and then motored on to near Benelmadina, where he knew another bloke who had frequented the Primrose, but who now found it more convenient to ply his trade in Spain. He had some sideline converting villas for ex-pats and had said that Shuggs could have work anytime he wanted. Shuggs had been burbling a bit by this point and in my state of mind at the time, I’d found it difficult to keep up, but I did recall that he’d kept apologising and told me twice to look behind the toaster. Of course, I’d fallen asleep not long after that and had forgotten till the morning. When I checked, there was an envelope addressed to me, with the words ‘sorry mate’ on the back. When I opened it, I found a cheque made out to me for three thousand pounds and a post-it attached saying ‘please take this in payment for the car and a bit extra for the rent etc. Look after my gear and say sorry to Marlene for me. Speak soon, Shuggs.’ It was barely any consolation that another envelope was also behind the toaster which must have arrived through the post on the Thursday morning when Shuggsy had come back from Wales and he’d placed there for me to find. It was from Pipers Men’s Clothing and contained a letter congratulating me on winning their monthly prize draw and also enclosed a thousand pounds of worth of vouchers. Guy Mattinson would have been laughing himself hoarse with my luck.
Mum hadn’t been awake when I arrived at the Home. The duty nurse said I could wait in the day room or have a walk around and she’d call me. I elected for the walk, reasoning that the sea air might bring me round a bit. I had been on the verge of bringing back the toast I’d managed to force down three hours earlier for some time, but I bought a takeaway cup of tea from a café and went to wander down the promenade for a while. The tea was hot and sweet but the weather was sharp and cold, and the combination of the two rejuvenated me enough to face returning to the Home. When I got there, the nurse said I could go and see mum in her room, but warned me that she’d been in some pain and had been sedated that morning, so she might not be quite herself. I thanked her and let myself in to mum’s room. She was sitting up in bed, but was fully dressed, at least above the covers, and was staring out of the window at the Home’s grounds. She turned when I came in, but didn’t seem as if she recognised me. I pulled up a chair and sat by her side but still with no sign of her knowing it was her son.
“Hi mum, how are you feeling?” I asked.
“Oh hello dear, I’m fine, have you brought my lunch?” She said ‘dear’ in a way she might have said it to one of the staff she knew.
“No, mum,” I persevered, “it’s George, I’ve come to see you because you haven’t come home this weekend.”
“No love, I am in the home,” she said, “but it’s nice to see you again.” I wasn’t sure by now what she thought I was. I told her about how Marlene was, and let her know what I’d been up to, but she just nodded and interjected with the odd ‘that’s nice love’ or some such and offered no acknowledgment of who or what I was talking about. There was a lull whilst I tried to think of a way of making her comprehend, then mum said,
“Do you know that Tony Christie lives in Spain now?” For a moment I thought she must have meant Shuggsy and agreed but she obviously didn’t, “It’s a shame because he used to visit his daughter when he lived in Yorkshire, but he’s allergic to dogs of course, and she’s got two dogs.” I smiled, and went to put the kettle on. For the rest of my visit she waffled on in the same vein and I didn’t make any further effort to convince her of who I was. At one point she asked if I’d defrosted the turkey, when I said I had, she asked “how did you defrost it?” I left after an hour or so, feeling unsettled and depressed. I mentioned to the nurse on the way out about mum’s state of mind and she reassured me that it was temporary and a side-effect of the sedatives. I asked the nurse to get mum to ring me during the week and walked back to the station. On the way home, I rang Marlene on her bedside phone briefly, not telling her about mum’s transitory amnesia but said that she’d sent her love. Then I rang Astrid to apologise for the previous night’s session of texting while twatted, she thought it was funny and we arranged to meet up in town that evening to see a film or something similarly undemanding. I got a cab from the station as the train was delayed. When I reached home, I put the key in the lock and was just about to push the door, when a voice behind me startled me into spinning round, and I almost put my hand straight through the glass portion of the door.
“Aren’t you going to invite me in then son?” asked the man I formerly knew as da.

Right, I hear what you’re thinking, ‘well, what a surprise his dad’s back, like we didn’t see it coming a mile off, in fact there was a taxi pulling up for that one three days ago. Yada yada.’ And I’ll give you that, maybe given the way events had been going, it was odds on that da was going to turn up at some stage. But you have to remember, this was a man who I hadn’t seen, or heard from in over fifteen years. No phone calls, no birthday or Christmas cards, no telegrams (do they still do those?), no e-mails, not a peep. And now here he was, looking more or less the same but with a few years and quite a few pounds on him.

I very nearly didn’t let him in the house, but he’d already virtually got himself through the door, so there was little I could do. I went first and ushered him into the living room, where he flopped down on one of the double sofas. ‘Don’t make yourself too comfortable, you’re not stopping’ I thought. I wandered into the kitchen, trying to remain as casual as possible, like this sort of thing was always happening. Come to think of it, things like this had been happening a lot lately. I wanted them to stop. I pushed the Pipers vouchers back in the envelope and slid it behind the toaster again, I didn’t want them leaving the house in his back pocket. I walked back through to the living room, weighing up what I was going to say. Da had picked up a small photo album off the sideboard and was flicking through it. No point messing about.
“OK, just what the fuck are you doing here?” That’s the pleasantries over then.
“Woah, George, no need for the language, where did you get that from?”
“Well I don’t know if you’ve noticed at all, but I’m thirty years old now and I’m officially allowed to swear as much as I fucking want. Especially when uninvited guests are in the house.”
“Right, like that is it?” Da said, standing up and walking over to the window. “I see old Robbie over the road never got that cherry tree chopped down.”
“He’d have a job now, he’s been dead for six years,” I said. “Anyone else you want to know about, or can we cut the crap now?”
“Jeez, George, I knew you’d be surprised to see your old man, but I thought I’d get a better reception than this.” Was he soft in the head?
“Well, let’s see. You pissed off to God knows where when I was still at school, leaving me and mum to fend for ourselves and never told us where you’d gone. For all we knew you were dead.” I paused. “And to be honest, I wouldn’t much care if you were.” There were two ways that comment could have affected him, fight or flight.
“Listen, youse.” Fight it was then, and for some reason he was becoming a stereotype Irishman again. “This is still my house you little bollix and just cos I’ve been away for a while doesn’t give you the right to tell me what I should be doing.”
“Your house?! That’s a fuckin’ joke!” I snarled, “It hasn’t been your house for years, in fact, it’s my house now, so effectively you’re trespassing.” Da laughed.
“What do you mean, your house, I bought it, it’s in my name.”
“Wrong on both counts, it’s in my name now and I pay the mortgage so you can kiss my arse. I’ll get the copies of the papers the solicitors managed to sort out from the shit you left behind after you’d been gone for eight years shall I? Or are you going to dispute that we didn’t hear from you all that time?” I was getting riled up now, I couldn’t believe the nerve of the bloke.
“Aren’t you the big man then? Suppose your little girlfriend’s moved in, looking at them photos, what was she called, Margaret?” Prick.
“Marlene, and yes she lives here in her own room, and she pays rent, so does Allan.”
“Right little love triangle isn’t it?” he sneered, “well seeing as you’re getting all that bunce in, you’ll be able to see your way clear to bunging your da a sub won’t you?” Now I really couldn’t believe my ears.
“I just need a few quid, see me right, then I’ll be on my way, you won’t even need to tell your ma.” He looked round, past me and down the hallway. “Where is your ma, by the way?”
“She’s in a nursing home, not that you would give two shits.”
“Oh right, I get the picture, you move your big dopey mate and your bird in and there’s no room for your ma.”
“Don’t come the fucking preacher with me,” I spluttered, “she was diagnosed with MS five years ago, so I pay for her to spend the week there and she lives here at weekends, not that it’s any of your business. And you can think again if you think your sponging off me.” That had got him, finally. He put his hand to his head.
“Multiple Sclerosis, ah jeez. That’s tough.” I almost felt sorry for him for a millisecond, but I knew I couldn’t afford to let my guard down. “Look, all I need is a hundred quid or so, I just need to get back over the water for a while, get my head together, then I promise I’ll make it up to you, I’ll pay for everything I’ve missed.” I didn’t know which was more sickening, his pleading or his unbridled audacity.
“You don’t get it , do you? It’s not about the money, it’s about you disappearing and leaving us on our own, mum always thought you’d come back, that it was some sort of misunderstanding, she was distraught for ages. It’d kill her, knowing you’re here now.” I thought for a moment and came to the conclusion that it was better getting him out of the house by any means before I did something I’d regret. “Wait here, and don’t touch anything, I’ll be back in a minute.” I left him thinking over what I’d told him and ran upstairs to my room. I reached up to the top of my wardrobe and took down a model of the Millennium Falcon. Opening up the back of it, I pulled out a roll of banknotes, the balance of what was left of my winnings from the bets and the casino. I peeled off ten twenty pound notes and stuck them in my jeans pocket, replacing the rest carefully, and checking that the sneaky bastard hadn’t followed me up and was checking out where I kept my cash. Then I ran back downstairs, where I found da helping himself to a belt of scotch from the drinks cabinet. I decided to let it go.
“Get that down you then and then you’re going to leave.” I said.
“Can we not just go up the road for a pint, for old time’s sake, let me buy you a drink, c’mon?”
“Er, I don’t think so.” He swallowed the scotch and put the glass down. I held out the money to him. “There’s two hundred there, should be enough to get you to Ireland, you can fly with that.” He took the money without a murmur, then made to leave. I followed him out, making sure he didn’t pocket anything. I didn’t want to get in any discussions about what had reduced him to begging for cash, I presumed he wasn’t a fireman or even working any more. He opened the door, then turned back to me.
“Would you not tell me where your ma is son? I just want to tell her why I went.” That did it for me, he wasn’t going to tell me and yet he’d tell the woman he supposedly had loved, the woman who still carried a torch for the useless twat after all these years, the woman who was now lying in a care home, not recognising her only son. So I did the only thing I could in the circumstances. I punched him hard and broke his nose.

When I met Astrid later at the cinema I wasn’t in the best frame of mind. I’d had to strap my hand up after I’d kicked (or rather thumped) da off the premises, so naturally she had asked what I’d done and I had to tell her. We gave the cinema a miss and went for a drink and I filled her in on everything that had gone on since we’d kissed goodbye at the house. It seemed like weeks ago. And yes, I did tell her everything, including Shuggsy’s flight from the law. She listened to the whole sorry tale, snuggled up to me in a booth at the Vines, one of the old style pubs in town that had resisted the march of the chain boozer. At the end, after I’d got a bit emotional telling her about da’s reappearance and subsequent violent departure, she put her head on my shoulder and hugged me. I don’t think the shock had quite sunk in until I told her and I was a bit shaky, at the end of the story.
“Poor you,” she said. “I wish I’d been there to look after you.”
“I’m glad you weren’t there, it wasn’t good, any of it.”
“Are you sure you want to go home afterwards, won’t your father come back?” she asked.
“I don’t think so, I think I left him in no doubt that he wouldn’t be welcome,” I said, holding up my strapped hand. “But maybe I’d feel safer if there was someone with me.” I stroked her face with my good hand.
“Hm, I don’t think you are scared of the dark somehow!” Astrid said, smiling.
“I was thinking that maybe if you did stay we could go and see Marlene at the hospital,” I said. I was conscious of the fact that I hadn’t seen her for a couple of days. God knows what Mike Bradley thought about me now, he hadn’t even bothered to ring to ask if I was going to see her. After a couple more glasses of wine, I’d persuaded Astrid to come home with me, with the promise of a takeout pizza from the trattoria on the way. We called in at her flat on the way to pick up some clothes and a toothbrush, then cabbed it back with the pizza. Then we ate and canoodled on the settee whilst watching Amelie on DVD (I didn’t mind seeing it again as Astrid had never watched it, I put it down to research). After Amelie and her lover careered through the streets on his scooter we made love, then we went to bed and fell asleep holding each other. It was the safest I’d ever felt in my life.

The next day, being Sunday, I took Astrid to a local café for a leisurely brunch. Maybe it wasn’t as trendy as Didsbury or even Chorlton in Manchester, but it had a nice atmosphere and more importantly you could mix and match your breakfast choices from an enormous list of options and all at a reasonable price. We ate our fill, read some of the Sunday papers, then strolled back to the house, in the crisp winter sunshine. I had intended to go straight to the hospital, but when Astrid insisted on getting changed before leaving, I became distracted for some reason when she was standing in her underwear deciding which top to put on. Well, it wasn’t that often I had the house to myself. Eventually, we got to the hospital about half an hour before official visiting hours ended. Marlene had been moved out of Intensive Care by now as her condition had improved, but her father had paid for a private room. He had probably forgotten that we still had shared wards here on the NHS and was horrified by the prospect of his daughter having to sleep in a room with a load of post-operation OAP’s coughing and spluttering all night, but I bet he also was surprised at how cheap the room was at fifty pounds a night. You could probably quadruple that in America. Marlene was a lot brighter than last time I’d seen her and seemed genuinely pleased to meet Astrid, although I’d been a little anxious about them meeting for the first time. I gave Marlene the edited highlights of what had occurred over the last few days, leaving out da’s return and Shuggsy’s unscheduled departure. I just said that he’d gone abroad on a job for a couple of weeks to earn some extra money before Christmas whilst the weather was unpredictable in England. It wasn’t strictly the truth, but then again it wasn’t a total lie either, and I thought discretion was the better part of valour in this case, I didn’t want her having a relapse. I did tell her about mum though, leaving nothing out, I said that I’d take Marlene to see her when she came out of hospital. Marlene went a little quiet at that and looked down at the sheet. Something was coming and it wasn’t going to be good, I could tell from her demeanour.
“I need to tell you something,” she glanced at Astrid, but I nodded and didn’t say anything, whatever it was I’m sure we could both hear it. “When I’m able to leave the hospital, I’m going back with dad to California.” I was taken aback, but of I was being honest, I wasn’t totally shocked. In fact Astrid and I had even discussed it in the Vines the previous night. I’d mentioned that he’d been shaken by her accident and had said to me something about coming back to England for a while. I think he had the type of job in IT where he could virtually work anywhere as long as he was still in touch with his base in Silicon Valley by e-mail, but maybe the grim reality of the weather and culture in his old home town had made him realise how good his life was out there. I can’t say as I blamed him, I was even seriously thinking about getting a passport and seeing a bit of the world, especially now I had someone to share it with. I allude to the conversation with her dad to Marlene and we agreed that it would probably be best all round. Marlene was at pains to point out that it wasn’t forever, she would go at first on a three month tourist visa and see how things worked out. We left the ultimate consequences unspoken. I was seeing things differently now, if this had happened pre-Astrid, I would have been distraught but I was learning to accept things change, not always for the better, but life went on. Just before we left, Marlene said she had something else to tell me.
“You know that book that you kept reading and quoting things to me from?”
“Do you mean ‘Be Lucky!’” I asked.
“Yes, that’s it. Well, I’m afraid I did something bad with it.” I tensed, hoping it wasn’t that bad. “You have to remember this was when I was about to move out and we’d been arguing.” She looked as though she was about to cry.
“It’s OK,” I said, holding her hand.
“Well, I took it from your room.” She was welling up now, “it was all because I wanted to get back at you, I’m sorry about it now, it was just because you kept going on about winning the money and being lucky and I was sick of it.” A tear tracked its way down her cheek.
“Don’t cry Marlene, just tell me what you did with it, I won’t be angry.”
“I took it to your Book Exchange and put it on one of the shelves,” she shivered and dissolved into tears. I held her whilst she sobbed, as I looked at Astrid over Marlene’s shoulder she looked confused, and I realised I hadn’t told her about Be Lucky! and its supposed ‘powers’. I could see it was time for another candid chat when we got home.

In the event, Astrid didn’t come home with me, not because she didn’t want to, in fact she seemed torn for a while, but she had to travel to Glasgow in the morning and said it would be easier to go from her house to the railway station as it was nearer, plus she didn’t know if she had enough clothes for the stay up there, which was going to be three days, attending a conference. I told her I’d ring her tomorrow after work, but she could ring anytime and she said she would, after we kissed goodbye. I was starting to feel like part of me was going with her, not to be too clichéd, but I was falling in a big way, I just knew.

I was back at the Book Exchange on Monday morning and I got in early, well before the nine o’clock opening time as I was on a mission and not one of Grant’s wanky undertakings to secure a gross of unchecked proofs of the Whitbread winner or some such. I had to try and source Be Lucky! and deal with it, or at least return it to the hapless Gareth, so he could take care of its disposal. I opened up and went immediately to scan the shelves for the recognisable cover. I checked three times but couldn’t see it. When Sean got in, we exchanged pleasantries then I asked him if he remembered seeing it.
“What was it called?” he asked.
“’Be Lucky!’” I said, trying not to speak in the manner of Jim Davidson.
“Can’t say as I do. Do you know when it came in?” Sean was incredibly serious when he wanted to be and he obviously wanted to be at the moment.
“Not sure, about two weeks ago, but the person who brought it in didn’t sell it.”
“What do you mean?” Sean asked. I could see the ‘does not compute’ sign flash across his mind.
“Er, she just put it straight on the shelf I think, she didn’t want to sell it, she just wanted rid.” I didn’t bother enlightening Sean further, it would have only confused the poor lad even more. I went to put a brew on while he had a think, I’ll say one thing for Sean, when there’s a problem that he thinks he can get a solution for, he doesn’t stop thinking it through till he gets there. I once saw him solve a question posed to him by a punter who wanted to know exactly which issues of 2000AD Johnny Alpha started and finished, and no he didn’t just ring the publishers which is what I would’ve suggested, but he worked it out from the copies we carried in the shop. Eventually, he got there, halfway down his mug of tea.
“I sold it last Thursday!” he said, snapping his fingers (yes, really). Oh bugger. I tried to remain calm.
“I don’t suppose you remember who to do you mate?” He had another think.
“Yeah, I do as it goes. It was a woman who I’d given an exchange credit. I remember her ‘cos she hadn’t got enough to spend her whole credit so she pulled that book out to make up her total. I wouldn’t normally have bothered and given her a couple of quid back but Grant was hovering.” Good lad, I knew I could rely in him to come up trumps. “I thought it were strange how there was no price in the cover, but if someone put it straight on the shelf that’d explain it.” He reached under the counter for the books bought ledger. He opened it at Thursday last and slid his finger down till he reached the details of the seller. “Here it is, Julia Westhouse, oh yeah, I remember her, nice looking, student I think, yeah she gave me her NUS card as ID, that was it.” I made a note of the address, and Sean closed the book.
“Is there a problem with it or something George? Can’t say as I’ve ever heard of that book.”
“No, no problem, just want a copy myself and I thought we had it, I might just go and pay her a call. If she’s nice looking it won’t harm either!” I said.
“Don’t let your girlfriend find out then,” Sean said, smiling. Ha, me with a girlfriend, who’d have thought? I put the piece of paper in my wallet just as Grant arrived to inevitably spoil my day.

After I left the Exchange at five-ish, I did two things to try and maximise my opportunities of improving my life and then, I promised myself, I would be done with the whole luck karma thing forever. First of all, I went round to call on Julia Westhouse, hoping she would be in, and, more importantly, be willing to sell me the book. I’d taken a hundred pounds with me from my winnings, thinking that I would offer her something like a tenner to start with, then maybe up my offer if she stalled. I supposed that if I began at some higher amount she would get suspicious of my motives. I guess I would think it was a bit strange if a complete stranger turned up at my door proffering a wad of cash for a self-help book I’d picked up for buttons in a second hand shop. Then again, if she was a student she might be glad of the money. Anyway, my cover story was that I was writing a thesis on luck and I’d made a load of notes in the margins which I needed and the book had been put on the shelf by mistake by a well-meaning colleague. Not strictly a lie, but at least it had a ring of truth about it as well.

The house was in a street at the back of a row of shops off the main road which housed the college. I knocked on the door, and a late teenage girl came to open it who didn’t seem to answer the description that Sean had provided me.
“Erm, is Julia in please?” I asked.
“Yeah,” she said, darting back into the house and leaving me shivering in the thin rain which was falling. A full minute passed before the door opened again and a young woman stood before me. This must be Julia, and yes I’d be lying if I said she was unattractive.
“Hi?” she said, phrasing it like a question.
“Hi,” I echoed, suddenly feeling immensely foolish, “I work at the Book Exchange in town, the one on Mercer Street? I think you were in there last week and you sold some books?” She thought for a second, then folded her arms.
“Ye-es,” she said, slowly, obviously not wanting to give too much away. I gave her my tale of woe about how Be Lucky! was source material for a paper I was writing (appealing to her student sensibilities, I threw in something about an uncaring tutor and deadlines to tart the story up a bit) and how I needed it back for the notes and was willing to offer her cash money for it. She relaxed a little, even managing a slight smile when I said about the tutor.
“Well I have got the book yes, but..” oh shit here we go, “what I mean to say is, I had the book, but I gave it to my dad.”
“Oh right,” I said, wondering where this goose chase was going to end.
“Yeah, it’s weird really, because he used to have it and he was always going on about it and when I saw it, I thought it was fate, so I grabbed it in the bookshop.” She still seemed to be holding something back. “He seemed really pleased when I gave it him and turned straight to one of the pages. Strange really.”
“Yeah, strange,” I agreed, “listen you couldn’t do me a really big favour and tell me where he lives could you, I don’t need to get it back really but if I could just make copies of my notes it would really help me.” I didn’t want to plead, and offering her cash in the circumstances seemed boorish but I appeared to have done enough.
“OK, I’ll just go and get it, he’s just moved house actually, my mum died not long ago and he’s moved into a smaller place. Excuse me a minute, you can come in out of the rain if you like,” she motioned me into the hallway as she went back into the house. I couldn’t help but notice that she had a very pronounced limp in her left leg. Something struck me then and a cold chill ran up my spine. Julia limped back to me another minute later, carrying a diary which she was flicking through.
“Here you are, have you got a pen?”
“It’s OK, I’ll put it in my phone,” I said, pulling it out of my pocket.
“Alright, it’s thirty three Beechfield Court, it’s off Beechfield Drive, it’s a small block of flats.
“Oh yeah, I know it,” I said, “Can I just ask you and don’t think it’s strange but….is your dad called Gareth?”
“Yes, why do you know him?”
“Yeah, I do!” I made it sound as if we were old buddies, I didn’t want to freak her out completely. “Now that is weird isn’t it?”
“Very,” she agreed.
“Anyway, thanks for that, I’ll go and see him tomorrow.” I stepped out of the house, before she thought too much more about the ‘coincidence’. “Thanks for your time Julia.”
“No problem, I’ll let him know you’re coming, I was going to ring him later anyway.” She saw me to the door.
“No that’s alright, I’ll surprise him, I’ll bet he won’t believe it,” I said, waving my hand in departure. “See you.”
“Bye,” she said, and closed the door. I obviously couldn’t stop her ringing her dad, and I didn’t think she’d been entirely convinced by my story, but I decided to go straight round and see Gareth Westhouse and find out what the hell he was playing at.

The flats at Beechfield Court had two entrance ways, and I predictably chose the wrong one first. I walked to the other door, pulling the collar up against the rain which was now falling more steadily and heavier. I hadn’t worked out what I was going to say or do about the book, I’d just have to play it by ear. I located the door buzzer for number thirty three in the gathering gloom and pressed it, trying to get some shelter in the small lea offered by the porch. Somewhere in the flats a door slammed, and I thought I heard a snatch of some Bob Dylan and I racked my internal jukebox trying to work out what it was while I waited. I got there quickly, it was Most Likely You Go Your Way, I’ll Go Mine, as covered by Todd Rundgren on his Faithful album, otherwise I wouldn’t have known it, I bloody hate Dylan. I pushed the buzzer again, impatient to either gain entry to the flats or leave, I was getting chilled to the marrow here. Then a couple came down the stairs, and opened the main door.
“Are you waiting for someone to answer love?” asked the woman. Well, duh.
“Yeah, Gareth Westhouse in number thirty three, I’m meeting him for a drink if he’d hurry up and answer.” I said. I was getting good at this cover story lark, Ted Churchill would have been proud of me.
“That’s that new bloke on the top floor,” the bloke said, “go on up mate, I’m sure he won’t mind.”
“Ah, nice one mate,” I said, rubbing my hands exaggeratedly in Uriah Heep-like gratitude. I stopped short of saying ‘ever so ‘umble sir’ to him.

I climbed up the stairs which were lit by up-lights on the walls, the landing way of the top floor was in semi-darkness when I reached it though. Number thirty three was on the left, and didn’t seem to be inhabited, there was no light emitting from the crack of the door anyway. I contemplated knocking, but then the door flew open, I was so shocked I staggered back. Something dark and heavy rushed at me and I half-stumbled, half-tripped against the wall. Then my legs were swept from under me and I toppled over the top step and fell. I put my hands out to stop me but I was too unbalanced and only succeeded in slowing my fall slightly. I was aware of the floor rushing up to me then nothing but yawning blackness.

I knew I was unconscious, I was going to say I was conscious of it but that would be litotes, not to say petty, given the situation. I could hear, and feel, an incredibly powerful whooshing sound very close at hand, and I had a sensation of being prostrate on warm, wet grass. My viewpoint shifted and I had a giddy feeling of the world turning whilst I tried to hang on and I was suddenly looking up at the sky. Gradually, the reason for the noise that filled my senses became clear, although I couldn’t work out why it seemed familiar at first. I only knew that I couldn’t stay where I was, a dread of something impending filled me and I tried to stand, but couldn’t. Then I knew where I was.

A few summers ago, which now felt like a lifetime away, Shuggsy, Marlene and myself had spent a day hiking from Kendal, over Scout Scar and then onto the Sedbergh valley. Just outside Kendal, near a place called Brigsteer, they had just constructed the first phase of the enormous structures which formed a wind farm. I remembered that we stood in awe of these giant monoliths, their latent power and sheer scale humbling us, and we seemed to stand for ages in their shadow almost hypnotised and developing cricks in our necks, before moving off.

The turbines hadn’t been functioning that summer’s day, but here in the darkest shadow land of my mind they were spinning at full power, the ground thrumming with their force. I forced myself up onto my knees, holding my hands to my head in an attempt to keep my centre of gravity. As I looked beyond the generators to the top of the hill, I saw something gathering there. At first, it appeared to be one amorphous mass of black, but then gradually they separated and I could make out individual forms. They were moving, or rather almost gliding in a slow but inexorable march down the hillside towards me. My dread became palpable and I twisted away, desperate to run. The turbines seemed to shudder and an electric energy crackled in the air, making all the hair on my hair and body stand on end. I stumbled to my feet and couldn’t help but turn and look in horror as the distance between myself and the spectral shapes pursuing me became less, the first of them had almost reached the first pylon, about a hundred feet away from me now. I was aware of a screaming sound now, I thought it was the turbines increasing speed somehow, but then I was looking down on myself and realised it was me, making an almost inhuman wailing noise. I remained frozen to the spot, like some miniature Don Quixote before the windmills, too terrified to tilt against them. Then all at once, the swooshing noise ceased and the wailing stopped with it. The mass of shapes also stopped, and seemed to gel together again. Another sound started up, more insistent than the wailing but of a different, eerie timbre, coming from within the mass. I dropped down hard and fast back into my body, but now I was aware of a calm passing through me. Faced with the massed ranks of the Dream Police, I was now so certain that this was the end that I no longer felt connected with myself. I sank to my knees again and immediately the ground shook again, so hard this time that I literally had to hang onto a sod of earth to stay where I was. The chanting increased in volume and the gathering inched forward, just as a huge form hurtled past me and landed right in the middle of the black assembly. I closed my eyes and waited for the inevitable end but suddenly there was nothing, just a deathly silence. I blinked my eyes open and saw that I was now kneeling at the very edge of a huge smoking crater, into which three of the massive turbines had toppled. Then from over on the other side of the crater, a figure emerged, clad all in white. As the smoke cleared, I could make out a human form silhouetted in an orange glow. I suddenly felt incredibly peaceful and wondered idly if this was some sort of pre-cursor to the afterlife. Then the figure was by my side and I saw a familiar face smiling down at me. She reached down, and put a hand on each side of my head and I stood up. I looked into her suddenly piercing green eyes and understood who had finally saved me from the Dream Police. My Marlene.

In the hospital they had pieced together what had happened that night. Gareth Westhouse had attacked me outside his flat for reasons that the police, quite obviously weren’t aware of until I regained consciousness and told them the full story. After I’d fallen down the stairs, he’d fled to his daughter’s house, where he’d stayed the night, before she made him turn himself in the next day. I’d sustained (in order of seriousness) a fractured skull, a punctured lung, two broken ribs, a broken ankle and I’d broken two of my fingers. Even when I’d told them of my association with Westhouse, they weren’t sure of his motive, but I guessed that he’d not wanted to part with Be Lucky! even knowing what the consequences of owning it could be.

Over the next few weeks, I slowly convalesced, Astrid visited every day and made sure I had everything I needed, which included, when I was fit enough to move around, a visit from a psychiatrist, which I paid for. I wanted to get an answer to why I’d been tormented for so long by the Dream Police, and to reassure myself that it was all over now. She couldn’t offer a concrete solution for either, but simply talking about it was helpful and she never disputed anything even when to me it sounded like the rantings of a madman. In the end, the psychiatrist could only surmise that I had been deeply troubled by something intangible, perhaps a combination of things but that with time I would become able to take myself away from the fear by a combination of self-hypnosis and meditation. She recommended a couple of experts in each field and left me with their details. I wasn’t sure that I would ever be troubled by them again, but after telling Astrid everything (that was a heavy conversation), I agreed to contact them. Julia Westhouse visited me a few days before I was discharged, mainly I think to find out why her dad had virtually lost his mind, but also to apologise. I told her she had nothing to apologise for, it had just been a case of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. Grant and Sean also visited, Grant even asked when I was coming back to work, the knob, but at least he smiled when he said it. The three other people in my life who meant the most to me never came to see me though, mum was too ill to travel, and the carers hadn’t told her for fear of her becoming more unwell. Shuggsy had rung the house a few times and eventually Astrid answered the phone, whilst she was there picking up some clothes for me. She told him everything and he rang me on the mobile but said he couldn’t come back yet. Then he told me why, obviously he hadn’t killed Tony O’Neill but he knew who had and was too afraid to come back to England for fear of reprisals. I tried to talk him round but I knew I was onto a loser, once the big man had made his mind up there was not much anyone could do to change it.

And Marlene? She left for Santa Barbara without knowing I was in the same hospital she had recovered in. She was officially given the all clear the day after I was brought in and Mike Bradley almost immediately whisked her onto a plane, only stopping briefly at the house to collect some personal things. I think she wanted to say goodbye but found it hard, she left me a note tucked into the gatefold sleeve of Something/Anything. It simply contained the last five lines from Anything song four:

Somewhere in the back of my heart it’s there
And every day it finds me, and reminds me
I will bear my cross, I will bear your cross too
I will pine forever, I will torch hold for you
I will carry my torch for you


Grant has opened another section in the book exchange and trades off my semi-fame in Viewer’s Commentary by flogging used DVD’s. He says I bring a ‘cache’ to the place. He’s still an almighty twat.

Sean combines working at the Book Exchange with writing scripts for a graphic novel called Diamond Geezers – he refuses to say who it’s based on.

Julia Westhouse changed her course to criminal psychology and is well on the way to gaining a 2:1 after…

Gareth Westhouse was acquitted of a charge of Grievous Bodily Harm after I refused to press charges. He now runs a centre for recovering gambling addicts.

Natalie now produces Viewer’s Commentary after its first run was a cult success on BBC2 North. It now goes out on BBC3.

Da is still in Ireland, as far as I know. Typically, he sent me a cheque last month for £220, to ‘cover the money you lent me, and have a drink on me.’ I haven’t cashed it, I leave it pinned to the kitchen corkboard as a reminder, just in case.

Mum now lives at the home full time. She has her bad days, but thankfully they’re not that often. I visit every weekend, and take her out in the car I bought after I finally passed my driving test.

Shuggsy still lives near Malaga, he’s happy as Larry and we went out to visit him. He still does the villa conversions but he’s part-owner of the Bannockburn bar in Benalmadina. Don’t visit it unless you’re Scottish or know who Chic Murray is. He’s still a big dozy lummock, but now he’s a big dozy tanned lummock.

Marlene lives near Santa Barbara, in a community of artists, writers and musicians. It sounds a bit hippy-ish but it’s really funky and she’s happier than she’s ever been. Her dad pulled some strings to allow her to stay in the USA for as long as she wants as long as she doesn’t earn money from working, he supports her and she just writes and sketches which is all she wanted to do anyway. I went out there last year and we went to see Todd play in San Francisco and then met him backstage. It was perfect.

And Astrid and me? We’re living together in the house. I don’t make subs anymore but I still help out in the Book Exchange occasionally but I work full time on Viewer’s Commentary now and I’ve just been invited to write a few pieces for Empire. Astrid has changed my life completely and I’m so happy now, she’s even took me to my first ever football match in Milan this year. It must be love. And as for luck? I know now that you make your own, good and bad and no book is going to tell you how to do it.

Be lucky!