Saturday 24 December 2011

Nicely Pink In The Middle

A Festive Tale In Ten Daily Parts

Now go back, start at Part One...
...and a Happy Christmas

Nicely Pink In The Middle, Part 10 (And End)


Nine Days Before. Evening Tele

Now on BBC2 we begin a new weekly series called... Moviedrome.
“My name’s Alex Cox and welcome to the Moviedrome. What is a cult film? A cult film is one that has a passionate following, but does not appeal to everyone. James Bond movies are not cult films, but chainsaw movies are. Just because a film has become a cult movie does not automatically guarantee quality. Some are very bad; others are very, very good. Some make an awful lot of money at the box office; others make no money at all. Some are considered quality film, others are exploitation movies.
            “One thing cult movies do have in common is that they are all genre films. For example gangster films, or westerns. They also have a tendency to slosh from one genre into another, so that a science fiction film might also be a detective movie, or vice versa. They share common themes as well, themes that are found in all drama: love, murder and greed.
            “Tonight’s first film is Andy Warhol’s Nicely Pink In The Middle. Originally an attempt to film the Antony Burgess novel A Clockwork Orange it predates Stanley Kubricks considerably more successful 1971 version. Originally under the working title Vinyl, the movie is always strange, often challenging. Most interesting are the changes made, most obviously that Alex, the violent and pitiless protagonist is here a woman, not a man. Cut to twenty-three minutes, what is perhaps most intriguing thing is not the story at all, so much as Alex herself. Or her casting. Because the actress, noted only as ‘Roux’ and about whom very little has ever been known, bears a startling, some might say identical appearance, to Alexandre in Milies Le Voyageur De Temps from the early part of the century. One of the earliest science-fiction movies, Le Voyageur De Temps is certainly the first exploration of the time-travel genre, however briefly. The name and the appearance have led many to believe that Nicely Pink In The Middle whilst not explicitly saying so, is at least a homage to Le Voyageur De Temps, and in many ways, albeit hardly sequentially, a sequel. Or about the same character at least. It is fitting then that our second film tonight is... Le Voyageur De Temps.”
            Mme Roux sat in a stranger’s chair watched the tele with growing realisation. In her hand the envelope Artie West had handed her. Inside the envelope and headed today, at this time, on this channel the words ‘And you will die’. Whoever’s house this was had not been home for some days. The heating was off. There was nothing fresh in the kitchen. Not that Mme Roux would have cooked. Near to hand she had a plate of microwaved Findus crispy pancakes and a similarly zapped potato waffle. She loved microwaves. They perfectly suited her level of interest in cooking with her abject and artful laziness. She took out her notebook and under the much covered and almost as often crossed-out she wrote, Warhol. 

Soho, 1991. All My Droogs

“I adore chestnuts,” said Mme Roux. In the back of the old Bentley she ate from the bag to give herself the strength to change outfits. She was excited, ambitious, a little angry even. A traditionalist at heart who was happy for anyone, anywhere, state, prince or paintbrush to take charge, being executed by a scion of all that was decent was apt to put one towards the dirty. She remembered it, vaguely, like a scene from a film or a play she could not otherwise recall. She peeled another chestnut, delicious. “And Alf, thank you very much.”
            The ugly-striking man with his hair and face a little too long asked Mr Susan in the front to drive on, adding to Mme Roux, “That place,” he pointed with his thumb out the back window. “That place’ll show any old shit. Only cost me a double Remy Martin to see you put on. Trick was finding copies of the films. They were under a collection of famous-people’s bicycle bells as it happens.”
            “No, for the chestnuts,” she held up the bag but did not offer to share.
            “Get the cash?”
            Mme Roux had been revealed as a dago-type. Had been executed by Aunt Minerva. Had been revived in an unexpected art house sequel she had set up herself, and stepped from the screen reborn and ready for round two. And Alf wanted his money. She said, “I’ll get it...”
            “No, you’ll owe me is what you’ll do, Mrs. Treasure I got.”
            “I’d rather not.”
            “Then you should’ve paid at the till and not taken on tick, Mrs. And for a start, I’ll call you ‘Mrs’, Mrs.”
            Mme Roux shuddered. Then smiled, it was Christmas and she had presents to give. In a bag were clothes more to her style. Dressed still for Nicely Pink In The Middle other dago-types might follow their cinematic theme but Mme Roux had made herself Mme Roux, and Mme Roux did not appear in any films. She said, “Any reason not to just drop me off at Hampstead?”
            Alf shook his head, paused, and admitted there was one thing. “Message from that lowlife Artie West,” he said. “Urgent, desperate, important... wants to meet you.”
            “Oh, couple of years back now. Bishopsgate way.”

The Hampstead Temple, 1991. Aunt Minerva You Spoil Me

The motorcycle had been parked at the kerb. Kim the valet had been bound, gagged and left in the larder. Mme Roux showed herself into Lord Rockingham’s study. The tree was different and parcels now made a tidy foot about its base. The air was port and oranges. In a cardigan and good corduroy Henry Lord Rockingham had not looked surprised to see her. He smiled his faint smile, a man of good health, still with his youth about him though at a pinch early forties?
            “I’ve brought your gift, Henry,” said Mme Roux.
            “You’re always so very generous, my darling.”
            “And I just love that extra level of superiority that comes from knowing that no harm can come to you, because you know that ultimately it is you that kills me.”
            Both eyebrows rose. He did not look towards the long since cleaned rug, nor to the cigar box. She rather admired the old lady’s control. He said and as if in some concern, “Has someone been spreading naughty tales?”
            “Henry, please. You killed me. In this room, I remember it. I was there. I’m a dago-type. I had a sequel after all. I am the clever one.”
            “Oh dear,” said Henry.
            “No apology?”
            “I would not so insult you. We are adversaries after all, you and I. Aunt Minerva and the scratch. I regret its necessity but no, I would do it again my darling.”
            The Little Tramp entered. Still in his folded leathers he had added sunglasses. Over one shoulder he now carried Henry’s golf bag. In it a good selection of brollies, walking sticks and canes. At his appearance Lord Rockingham closed his eyes. He opened them again still thoroughly composed. Mme Roux said, “There is no need for Aunt Minerva, if ever it was anything more than your own invention, a myth to excite and recruit, control and manipulate people. Film and photography won’t last. The dago-types will be rarer, and they will dwindle and be gone. A passing thing, an interesting myth, a ticklish legend. And so very few are like The Little Tramp, or Norvell, or Arthur. Most are bit parts. Kitchen-sink lonelies and one-liners. A few, a very few, have more purpose. I suppose as much, I don’t really know. None of us do. We don’t call it the scratch and we don’t know what we are. But most of us, them, are just frightened, fading little images. So I’m going to take the mirror from you Henry,” said Mme Henry. “And all the quiet lift men and char ladies, the nodding hole-diggers and bus drivers, they can have their little bit of mirror this Christmas. And as times and technology change, they’ll have that little bit of themselves, and perhaps they won’t fade.”
            “I see,” said Henry. “You expect me to just give it to you?”
            “No Henry, I shall take it. I don’t want it as a gift. It is important to me that it is yours. You were given it, it was handed to you. You used it and concerned yourself with the scratch. You elected yourself the Prefect of the Chevalier Dammes Blanche by consequence. You are the last of them, the last hermit-knight. Tell me, how long is it since you last left the house?”
            “A number of years...” he admitted.
            “I thought so. I’m sure it rather appeals to you, the hermit-knight. The implication of duty. Repentance, perhaps absolution.”
            “I see, how lovely of you. You are not then going to kill me?”
            “I most certainly am not. What sort of a person do you think I am? A murderer indeed!”
            “And your friend The Little Tramp who if memory serves is not so particular?”
            “Is going to find them for me, over all the many Christmas eves. A piece of mirror in a stocking, or a sock, and probably with a hole in it for the toe. If you attempt to interfere with my fetching of the mirror pieces he will cripple you, unman you I believe would be his preference?”
            Henry Lord Rockingham went to where amongst the decanters he had a rather special seventy-year malt. He did not offer to share, but did raise his glass. “I’ll get all old and horrid you know, my darling” he said.
            “I doubt that very much. You are likely to have a very bad Christmas.” Returning to the door she opened it, turned back, and said, “I’ll see you again Henry. Sadly for you this is where we part. Good night to you Prefect of the Chevalier Dammes Blanche. It’s all been rather lovely.”
            “I rather think so too, my darling.”
            “And Henry?” said Mme Roux.”
            “Happy Christmas.”

Christmas Morning, 1991. From Bode With Love

He ate his egg, three and a half minutes, in the cup with the thin blue band. His affairs were in order. He had thanked Kim for his loyal service and paid him off handsomely into retirement. He had bathed and shaved early. He had dressed with care. He had ignored the knocking on the door, so too the sound of its breaking. He set aside his spoon and reached for the napkin. The only light other than the fire in the grate and the bulbs on the tree were three red spots that fidgeted about his chest. Three masked men in one-piece black and armoured vests stood about him. Henry did not move other than to raise both hands, in surprise or surrender.
            So they remained to the ticking of the clock. At length a mummy was delivered by wheelchair. The eyes bright, his one hand pressed to the chin. He smiled. He was ghastly. One of the men in black let his gun fall on a sling as he stepped behind Henry. There was a rustle and then darkness as a bag was drawn tight about Lord Rockingham’s head.
            The Graf Imric Von Bode said, “You were the Prefect all along, in Berlin. After.”
            Henry just about able to speak supposed that he was. He simply could not be bothered to deny it to someone who would believe nothing otherwise. He dabbed at his covered mouth with his napkin, the action earning him a terrible few moments of suffocation. He said when he could, “You... resent that?”
            “His name was Karl. He was a loyal retainer of Bode. Because of you Bode has lost many such loyal followers. You are the Prefect of the Chevalier de Dammes Blanche. You carry the blood on your hands of my grandfather, the old Graf. But more than that, you should not have set your Finns on my man.”

I Lied About The Dinosaur

They sang carols about the tree in Trafalgar Square, a voice hundreds strong and somewhere between the tune and the singing it all evened out. Mme Roux hidden in flared coat and a vast hat tapped a toe both in time and irritation.
Close by Alf Bittersweet checked the time, an hour to go. He said, “You like all this, Mrs? All these people, all this singing, god, angels, little babies?”
Mme Roux chuckled. “I could eat,” she said.

Friday 23 December 2011

Nicely Pink In The Middle, Part 9

My Baby Shot Me Down

Chalon sur-Saone, 1914. My Only Friend

“It is time, Prefect,” said Risto. Jean Roux stared at the great, fat moustache of a man. They had aged. It was chimney smoke and windows that did it. He put down his own preserved figure and unlined nose to the healthy life he had enjoyed for years now entirely within the walled garden of the temple. The temple he remembered they were to leave now. The other guard Larin stood further away, rifle ready as if there was some threat. Between them the woman, who held now oiled and repaired a case made for certain specific instruments. Those instruments long broken, lost or forgotten it remained a convenient case for the larger of the scratched pieces of broken mirror.
            “It is the fighting, Prefect,” said Larin. “There is war, and to protect you we all must go.”
Jean Roux got easily confused by war. It had all been, he was sure, a lot easier once. Once it had been France on one side, and everyone else on the other. Of course it had hardly been that simple. If war was simple, then Jean Roux would not find it confusing. The Austro-Hungarian Empire had stormed into Serbia. Russia had done likewise into Germany, which didn’t help because that could mean almost anywhere to the east, except perhaps Bohemia, which was Austro-Hungary. Germany, which was Prussia really, had gone two better and attacked Luxemburg, Belgium and... France.
            Jean Roux said, “But didn’t France side with the Prussians and the Bohemians over the assassination? I’m sure I spoke out most forcefully?”
            “As then did the Bishop, sir. And too loudly, so much so that men are coming to take you into their custody. We cannot allow that Prefect.”
            He looked to the case held by the woman. He hungered for what it contained, was revolted with himself. Weeping he was bundled up and if they took him away gently, then still they did so firmly. 
            To Bavaria, to Meersburg and the Graf von Bode.

The Dorchester, London. 1988. Schicksal

With the treasure they would restore the House of Bode. Their riches meant nothing to Imric. He was the Graf only because fools would flatter a rich man. The title had been done away with, at first in the French occupation following the last war and then as part of the talks and arrangements to return power to the... Federal Republic of Germany. Bony hands tightened on the cane he was forced to use in those brief periods when his treacherous body allowed him from the wheelchair at all.
            On the rosewood table of the suite in the Dorchester stood the case. It was exactly as Imric remembered it to be. Carried by the Frenchman when he had been forced to flee Meersburg with the House of Bode. Imric had not fled. Imric had engaged instead on a wide and extremely tactical flanking move - in depth. He remembered that case and had he known then what he did now, why then...
            “You would not have taken it from him,” said Albrecht. Different as they were and never friends as boys, growing older adversity and the years had seen the two also grow together. Albrecht a colossal figure was spooning germknodel into his mouth. Vanilla cream spotted his many chins and light beard. Imric looked at the great, fat old beast of a man with his five bypass operations and medical team on constant standby. At his custom made forklift, at the oxygen tank flavoured with cinnamon, and saw only his brother. Family was all. Blood was all. But the flesh failed them both.
The damn reds had polluted the people of Bode, driving the House from Meersburg whilst Imric had been fighting the Czarist forebears of their then soviet masters. The reds had half of Germany still in its grasp. The next war was inevitable and Germany needed the Graf Von Bode. But the Graf Von Bode had little time left in this world, and had little use for the next.
            So, the case. Imric said, “You are correct, he was under father’s protection. And we did not know then what we learned in Berlin that little bit later. Ach, it matters not. Karl!”
            The leader of their mercenaries straightened. He put aside his magazine. He stood sharply as he knew the Graf liked. His pastel suit was smartly cut and the fashion for the baggy suited concealed weapons very well. He clicked his heels together, but his feet bare in snakeskin boat shoes made no sound.
            “Karl,” said Imric. “You may take the case. Fly with it personally. You know to where. The Learjet knows only to accept your instruction. You need not consider a flight plan, all is arranged.”
            Karl nodded once. He did not doubt it. He left quickly and without a word.
            The Graf Imric Von Bode looked to his brother Albrecht Baron Meersburg. The case held relics, mirrors, or pieces of ancient power. They preserved life, lengthened it, healed pain and disease. Imric’s friend Jeremiah had told them as much, so long ago, and how it had come to be lost having heard a little from the girlish Rockingham and been the one sent to find it. Imric had sent Albrecht to better search the area and for a year his brother had sent regular updates as to his failure, now nearly sixty years ago.
            His faith in his destiny had not faltered. The shadow of death upon him he had learned of the case. His faith had been rewarded. He was a true Parzival, even if he looked now like Klingsor. In the castle of Meersburg the case would be opened in accordance with ritual. There would be no risks taken. He and Albrecht would be fit again. His destiny would be fulfilled.
            “Der Ring des Nibelungen?” said Albrecht.
            A servant went to the record player. It was a morning for Wagner.    
Park Lane, Mayfair. 1988. Hammer Of The Gods

“I told you,” said Rikki. A Mighty Battling Finn he had been in more recent years a stallholder at Bermondsey Market. His three years in gaol had seen his naturally inquisitive nature develop into a skill for getting small things people wanted. Outside and whilst he no longer worried about toothpaste, chocolate and Razzle his time inside had meant in the years since his antique stall had never been short of small treasures, still warm to the touch. Asking about the case Kull wanted them to find had led him to Sotheby’s. Thinking to break in he had abandoned the idea after only a cursory inspection. An inspection late at night when by chance he had then seen a familiar face, and then a familiar case, doing what he had himself just then rejected. “I followed him like I said, here. He didn’t leave with the case. I told you.”
            Kull was immensely pleased. There and at the entrance to the closed Dorchester Hotel a man did indeed hold the case. He inspected the folded sketch provided by the lawyer. He nodded.

His conscription had given him a taste for the life, but planning to die in a costly delaying action against thousands of Russian tanks whilst France dithered and the Americans deployed ‘tactical’ nuclear weapons on his head was not what Karl had had in mind at all. He had with two mates joined instead the French Foreign Legion, which especially after the end of the last war had always had a strong German presence. Gutted after its rebellion over Algeria the Legion had been a tighter, harder regiment because of it. Karl had thrived, had excelled in action at Zaire, fighting as part of the elite 2nd REP. He had left after his five years with a clean record, commendations, a little rank and full dual citizenship. The day he and twelve others had formerly mustered out had been to a full parade, flags and bugles. He still carried in his wallet a card with a single phone number. If ever he was in trouble, wherever he was he knew, if he could reach a phone the Legion would come for him. France did not give a shit for national boundaries over matters of honour, and the Legion doubly so.
            His years as a mercenary had been less satisfying. The life was problematic, the people sloppy. Cowboys and pirates, the discipline shocking, the comradeship entirely absent. He had been recruited in Hamburg by the Bode Corporation three years before. He would die for the Graf.
            In the middle of London Karl waving for his car to approach was taken utterly by surprise when a mob of men ran at him screaming. Thinking them English yobs after some football match the night before he fired once over their heads, then twice more and with precision when this did not stop them. The car accelerated, hit another of the yobs but then blocked his aim momentarily and the hooligans slid, jumped and covered the car. Still he almost made the doors to the hotel before he was knocked down by too many of the barbarians. He crippled one that caught at his leg but hampered by the case chained to one wrist was in seconds powerless. When another stamped on his hand to drag at the case his arm was jerked painfully at the cuff. Karl did not make a sound until the largest of them shouting at the others produced a sword from his coat and hacked at Karl’s arm, breaking the bone, then severing it entirely.

Haven Hospital, 1988. Und Singt Ein Teufelslied

“I offer no excuse, Graf,” said Karl. The Police on a call from the Home Office had not questioned the German until Imric had arrived. Already and arrangements had been made to transfer Karl to a private clinic. The Graf did not like what he saw of the socialist British medical system. Angry with Karl the Graf nodded from his wheelchair. The soldier had only failed to give his life because of the speed of the British ambulance services, and an ambulance man that had served in Northern Ireland in his youth. Imric coldly evaluated Karl’s performance and decided the soldier had done as well as could be expected. The fault then was his.
He surprised Karl when instead of a stern rebuke he offered instead a very formal apology. Then to business, “Is there anything you can recall about your attackers?”
Karl nodded, “When they shouted at one another they did so in Finnish, Graf. I knew some Finns in the Legion.”

Berlin-Hamburg, 1919. By Half

The door whose lock he had so recently ruined he blocked with suitcases and a tea chest. Henry Lord Rockingham a man of little action spied the ladder and trap to the roof of the luggage caboose but he could not climb and manage the case, and had neither the time nor inclination to dither. Quickly he sought for and found his own trunk, unlocked it and after tugging free shirts, shoes and a few decent bottles saved from rotting Berlin tipped up the case to empty the mess of silvery shards within. His shirts and the bottles he quickly put in the oddly shaped case given him by the Von Bodes and that now considerably lighter he reached for the ladder. On a whim and having locked once again his travelling chest he removed the label from about one handle and affixed it to the case.
Foot on ladder, pistol in pocket, case pushed up ahead Henry Lord Rockingham was surprised at how calm he felt. He smiled faintly as he climbed and pushed at the trap. “Tally ho,” he said.

Bittersweet’s Treats, 1988. The Candyman Can

Desperation was no stranger at Bittersweet’s Treats. Only Kull was allowed inside and he with the case. It was clear he neither knew with whom he was dealing, nor much cared. Alf Bittersweet had to respect that, just as he had to respect the three foot broadsword that had still to be cleaned. The evidence of the handcuff on the case answered any questions of his, whilst for Kull’s he admitted that yes, this was what he was after, yes he could provide passports, visas, pocket money and papers and the name of a good fixer in Paris. Kull he saw was exultant. Alf with gloved hand fetched out a card, “If you can get your lads there you’ll be sorted out,” he said. He did not mention the haircuts. Alf a man of great if low wisdom made it a point never to mention haircuts to a hippy with a bloody broadsword.
Later and passing over the case to Mme Roux, he said, “That’s quite a bill you’ve run up, Mrs.”
“Madame. I’ll go and see about collecting it,” she promised.
“Far to go?”

North London, 1961. Tea With Aunt Minerva

The house would not be described as large by those living locally. All the houses in the street were much the same, a terrace between Belsize Park and Hampstead. Four storeys including the old servants quarters in the loft and not counting the basement that was Kim’s private apartment. It was an address comfortable with the sort of artists that rarely needed to produce, actors of a certain fame and civil servants who politely sent others about the world daggers-in-teeth.
A traditional sort of fellow Lord Rockingham liked a tree, paper chains and the glass baubles that had belonged to his grandmother. The wireless only received the BBC Home Service. Served by Kim his Ghurkha valet Lord Rockingham took his morning egg, as always boiled for three minutes thirty, in the cup with the thin blue band.
            He poured for Mme Roux, Kim retreated at the signal that the Lord wished to be alone with his guest. “Almost a year?”
            “I was surprised too, but then when you tell me I’d telephoned you at 5am you might not have been entirely specific as to which 5am that might have been?”
            “Yes my darling, about that...” Henry Lord Rockingham had already had 5am taken into the yard by strong grooms and convinced never to come calling again. “...But the case? From the Chalon-sur-Saone, a very old affair. Do we really need to go over such grubbiness again?”
            Mme Roux apologised, to be polite, even if she never meant a word. “You know how things are with me, Henry. I don’t walk with the years like any common woman. That’s doubtless why Aunt Minerva is so persistent in encouraging my services.”
            “That’s not quite the reason for Aunty's interest, my darling. You must try the marmalade. Tiptrees, rather good,” Lord Rockingham finishing his egg dabbed at his mouth. Then, “It is early and the season is ripe for good stories. So I shall pour us more tea and you shall tell me all that has happened.”
            Which Mme Roux did. Of what had happened, and what would, and what she had learned had happened to others. Henry described Berlin and The Little Tramp once again, this time admitting the switch he had made to the case.
            “So Aunt Minerva never lost the mirror?”
            “I certainly never did.”
            “How old are you Henry?” said Mme Roux. Used to seeing her friends at different ages and different times nothing ever seemed amiss regarding their appearance. But if this was 1961, and Berlin had been 1919, and Henry looked to be, what - late thirties? “Are you in league with the scratch, Henry?”
            He laughed. “Don’t be so melodramatic, my darling. Of course not, there is nothing about the scratch to be in league with. Niepce’s marvellous mirrors captured something, of something, and their destruction by Los Ninos Des Dios made a scar, a scratch across the world. You know that. And yes I have the shards, and don’t I look wonderful for it?”
            “You always look beautiful, Henry.”
            He inclined his head at his due. He said, “My dear all that you have described will doubtless now have to. I will put the case up for auction at Sotheby’s towards the end of the distant 1980s. It will come to the Finns, and then to you. And then again to me.”
            “I did not bring it with me.”
            “I would hope not, it is in my attic at this time. And anyway, and whilst perhaps you have forgotten - the case only held some German plonk and a few shirts. It was found by the way, shortly after being tossed into the fields. A German farmer, an honest fellow, sent it on to my address. From the luggage label I had the presence of mind to attach. I paid him handsomely, and in case of my implied embarrassment for his silence too. Of course I sent Jeremiah to look for it. Naturally he looked for a good five minutes, if he got there at all, despite what he telegrammed me to say afterwards. There is no mystery, Mme Roux. I have had the mirror all along. Your whole adventure is because you had the adventure. It’s what you do. It’s the part you play. Back in the days of the silent screen a board would now be shown declaring ‘The Exposition’. But I am no villain, my darling.”
            “But The Little Tramp, and those others...”
            “Norvell and Arthur? Dago-types my dear are characters escaped. Those three at best hunt for dago-types that have done so. They only troubled me because of the mirror. To them it too was what we call a dago-type.”
            Mme Roux closed her eyes. After a moment to collect her thoughts she said, “I have been troubled by The Little Tramp, Henry. Others too in my time.”
            As if to change the subject Lord Rockingham rose and went to the fireplace. There from a cigar box he took a cigarette, handmade with three gold rings about the butt. Only then he said, “Le Voyageur De Temps is a very early film. French made but drawing on Wells, because The Time Machine was so popular and Verne never wrote about such a thing. The Englishness of it shines through nonetheless, the heroine seemingly somehow so. Marrying Jean Roux was clever, it gave you solidity. Sympathetic magic I suppose, or something similar. You were joined with the Prefect of the Blanche Dammes. When the Expressionists revived the movie it gained a voice. You gained a voice, Mme Roux. Or Alexandre, if we are to be more exact.”
            “I am a dago-type.”
            Henry looked sympathetic. “And a revelation it must be. Mme Roux, you turn corners and enter different years. You wake in different decades. You walk through time. Now I ask you, is that possible? Unless for a dago-type? A dago-type that walks from a film about... time travel?”
            “No Henry, I suppose not.”
            “Aunt Minerva is interested in you not because you are a member, Alex, but because you are from the scratch. And I think when I speak to you next year then put the case up for auction in the years thereafter to come, why then we shall have tied off all the bows and trimmed all the edges. Tell me, do you remember what happens to the intrepid Alexandre at the end of Le Voyageur De Temps?”
            “I do.”
            Henry looked surprised. “Really?”
            “I saw it, not very long ago. It was quite a shock.”
            “Yes, I suppose it must have been,” from the cigar box Lord Rockingham produced a luger. Maintained and oiled since taken from the German guard in 1919 it now pointed at Mme Roux. “And how does the story end?”
            “Thinking his wife a ghost a panicked and grieving husband shoots her.”
            So Henry Lord Rockingham shot Mme Roux. She dropped to leave only an oily shadow on his good rug. Deafened, with a wince Henry replaced the pistol in its box. To the stain he said, “And no sequel was ever made, my darling.”

Part Ten and come: Two

Thursday 22 December 2011

Nicely Pink In The Middle, Part 8

If You Want To Live

Bromley, Kent. 1986. Not Actually London

Good King Wenceslas may well have looked out but Mme Roux did not, trying to run and look backwards together and doing neither very well. She collided with a tuba. The Sally Army had slowed the late shoppers, the streets lit with a hundred creepy Santas all flushed, drunk and enjoying the spectacle. Mme Roux hated running. She knocked a plastic cup of soup, spilled chestnuts from a stand that later would sell undead sausages to club goers and was shouted at by a man whose shopping she caught. She bounced into Woolworths. The difference in temperature was marked. Still hurrying she walked now, her breath catching up. Her damp jumper steamed and she knew just how it felt. Her feet were soaked and hurt, her lovely coat and shoes she had abandoned further up Bromley high street.
            “Shit, shit, shit, shit, shit...” she said. People stared. Giant boxes of milk tray, clutches of chocolate oranges and the world’s supply of bloody awful Turkish delight ran on for another mile. She looked again behind her and there just inside she caught a glimpse of The Little Tramp.     
            Without tiring he had pursued her. She had written off her car ten minutes before, using it as a weapon he had swerved aside from at the last moment. She running he had sauntered still gaining. Only in the crowds had she nosed ahead, he caught up in the sound and bustle of it, the colour of the decade. If not for Christmas lights and fairy bulbs it would already have been over. Rockingham had talked about The Little Tramp, one of the worst of the dago-men. The scratch seemed to like its vagrants. Certainly Chaplin, Laurel and Hardy were its most lethal agents. She swore again as ducking between horrid plastic trees she nearly put her knee out on an unexpected tub of plastic toy soldiers. The scratch was fighting back. Or so it had to be assumed, though Rockingham had opined many times that the scratch did not do anything, it just did. Its ways and wants were unfathomable.
            Hopping, she swore again. What did she know about the fucking Little Tramp? He couldn’t be bluffed, he couldn’t be lied to or manipulated, threatened or as all Aunt Minerva knew – fought. The closest anyone had come was some German back in the Great War, and it had cost him an arm. Mme Roux arranged things always to her own benefit, and to enjoy the least possible effort. Being chased by someone who would not listen left her unarmed.
She nearly collided with The Little Tramp.
            All in shades of grey, skin, eyes and teeth he held out a daisy. Mme Roux struck out with the palm of her hand only for him to sway suddenly back on impossibly bendy ankles. Mme Roux had expected nothing different. She turned right and away from the toys in the moment she had, skidding on wet tights into the kitchen supplies. Thinking, thinking always thinking Mme Roux caught up what passed for a weapon so that when she turned this time knowing he would be right there she smacked him full in the face with the frying pan two-handed.
            The Little Tramp fell on his bum. His face contorted, stunned. Mme Roux having only moments was thinking too fast to be frightened now. Hurrying to the racks of awful clothing she tugged at pastel-flaring shirts, pink and purple leg warmers. The sleeves went over her hands and The Little Tramp peering comically about the corner made a great show of looking for her. Another row and he matching her progress aisle-by-aisle Mme Roux grabbed and spilled most of a tray of cheap cosmetics. Digging along those rows she found the most garish. Purple blusher and orange lipstick. She smeared them on her face. Lines and streaks, great blobs, a mad women or a child on too much chocolate at her mother’s dressing table.
            His head turning The Little Tramp approached. His walk a little less cocky, his face mystified, sad, all in black and white from his black and white world. He did not see her. Mme Roux caught him about the back of the head. She hit The Little Tramp again, again, great over-shoulder blows with the frying pan that saw him jump on his back, a caught fish. Roy Wood said, ‘Take it kids’ and Mme Roux gasped, stepped back. On the floor an oily smear remained. Obeying its own laws a little bowler hat turned about and around like a spun penny before it too was still.     

Chalon sur-Saone, 1909. Bien Mal Acquis Ne Profite Jamais

In the gardens the Prefect de Dames Blanche hunted a curious beast. The gardens once magnificent had like the temple itself fallen to disrepair, filth and squalor. Tangled, the paths now few and unlikely the Prefect hunted the winter wilds suitably contained by three walls. He sniffed the air, not smelling himself (a miracle of determined obstinacy) nor too his prey. A beast, a beast of cold and winter, a beast of power, of claws and frenzy but whose meat would grace the Noel table, honoured in a pink sauce with tiny shallots. The Prefect Jean Roux circled about the little shelter the Finns had made for him in the gardens. His prey had doubled back on him. It was a cunning beast.
            Jean Roux did not look at the temple. He went there only when the perverse call of the moving pictures proved too great. The moving pictures that arrived from Paris, when they arrived from Paris at all. The temple desecrated by the Spaniards more than ten years before remained nearly untouched. The bodies had been left where they had fallen. Where the mirrors made by the late Prefect Joseph Nicephore Niepce had once caught, magnified, every magical moving picture long after its machine had stopped now a hundred broken shards remembered every story, every wonder projected there. Each scene unshot, each tale between, and every image suggested.
The Spaniards, those professed angels, had broken the mirrors and left across the chamber a scar in those fragments. A scratch upon the world that haunted Jean Roux, but in which chamber when a new story was shown was still amplified, intensified. He feared it, he hungered for it. He would squat and watch the flickering images and then swear to god and reason that never would he return. Twice he had made to burn down what remained of the temple, but each time had faltered and sobbing, relented. At first hating his self for returning there, but a hate that failed as the need grew. A need that followed him always, and which whispered.  
            The temple had become a place of local superstition and he the Prefect Jean Roux an increasingly revered figure, the hermit-knight. He that had stood vigil over the treasures of the Chevalier de Dames Blanche, too holy for the false-angels of Spain. That Jean Roux had been on a long ride during the destruction had been long forgotten. What was remembered was his ride through Chalon sur-Saone, in the protection (it was now said as far as Frenchmen travelled) of the saint Jeanne d’Arc. The hermit-knight the last of a line that went back to the crusades, to Charlemagne, to the end of the path, as long as his arm and no further than his puckered buccin de chocolat - and true for a good decade now. The Bishop enjoying the increasing pilgrimages undertaken to his cathedral had done nothing to speak out against such heresy. Indeed, encouraged it.
            Which Jean Roux found hilarious, for though he rarely left his gardens and never the environs of the temple, his was a wild and romantic figure. He thought so and said so, and the two that remained of the Finnish guard (who enjoyed an easy life) agreed.
            From the temple he heard pieces of his last, tearfully ecstatic visit now. A new print of Milies Le Voyage Dans La Lune, something of Verne and something of Wells. And of the more recent Le Voyageur De Temps, as if the clearly superior Verne had written the popularist Wells. Brooding he started when nearby bushes shook.
            “There!” said Jean. He raised the long hunting gun, a muzzle-loader but of considerable accuracy. There he spied the beast, and the beast spied Jean Roux. The beast had been brought to the temple by a follower, a religious man, a man who brought the sacrifice to the temple each year stolen from zoo, university or private collection. Jean Roux now faced that great beast of the total winter that capped the planet. The most terrible of bears, a killer without peer, a cunning monster a yard high, black and white, bottle-shaped, with lethal flippers folded for now, beak closed. Jean Roux approached with exaggerated stealth to within three yards of the monster before slowly levelling his six-foot gun. It was quite the shot. The polar bear’s head vanished and its body toppled backwards. Jean with his fingertips touched blood to the cheek. They would pluck it and stuff it and have bear for the Noel banquet. He had never tasted bear and would later discover it tasted just like penguin.  

Seven Dials, 1987. Pass The Mustard

“How much is this case worth to you?” said Alf Bittersweet. It was a busy time of year for Bittersweet’s Treats. Shoppers looking for gifts for people who had absolutely everything they might want were in the market for the strange. Casual shoppers were turned away. The serious enquiries were shown the dusty wonders of a bygone age. In the shop Mr Susan was demonstrating a gold-and-pearl fighting yoyo, genuine one previous owner only, ask not who.
            Alf was not his father. He did not rule a small army of stepsons. Susan and Lucy the youngest of those remaining were themselves far from young men. Times changed. Alf could find anything it was true, but little instantly. So he suggested the quickest way, “I can spread it about, case looks like this, weighs this much, worth whatever-you-say. Get the rats out of their warrens.”
            “Well yeah, money.”
            That was not really Mme Roux’s field. She knew the case was in London but the trail had thereafter gone cold. Her usual method of just wandering about and ending up mostly where she ought to be had led her here. Alf hadn’t seen her for a year, but out of respect for the Pop he still worshipped was truly trying to help. She said, “Can I use your phone?”
            Alf waved to her to a Bakelite affair on his writing desk, “Look Mrs, I’ll act for you, I’ll sort it, I’ll even front it. But you’ve got to underwrite it.”
            Looking down her notebook Mme Roux checked to see if Lord Rockingham was still alive. And if so at what number he might be contacted. The idea of using someone else’s money to fund someone else’s effort sounded absolutely perfect. The world was doubtless still in danger both grave and terrible, but she hadn’t bought a single present for anyone yet. And presents were tricky. Mme Roux could never be entirely sure when she would celebrate it, nor therefore with whom. With handset to her ear but before dialling she said, “Will it take long?”
            “Who knows, Mrs? A day, a month, a year – more?”
            “Madame,” she said, correcting him.

Bishopsgate, 1991. Not Gene Autry

It had to be worth something. He had begged at Bittersweet’s Treats for a message to get to her, to meet, and when pushed for where he had said The Black Raven. But the Raven had been demolished in ’86. The great ted pub dragged down and crushed. Developed, replaced. There was nothing left now. Just Artie, and other people (if they remembered the teds at all) might remember Showaddywaddy from Top Of The Pops from when they were kids. Artie West hated Showaddywaddy, just like he hated Mud. Boil-in the-bag teds, the tourist-teds that had never been teds in the first place. Artie smoked, lighting one from the butt of the other. The twisted little bodies of ten more bobbed in the puddle about his faded crepe souls.
            Artie had seen them in the market. Artie had stood, horrified, when they walked by. When the fat one had paused, Artie had ducked down. He hadn’t waited to see what they did next. Norvell and Arthur, Laurel and bloody Hardy, with a bloody saw and spattered dungarees and ignored by everyone else. Not far down the road and some office party was bawling out Bohemian Rhapsody (third time in succession) from Dirty Dicks. Set to be this year’s Christmas number one. It was monkeys outside, pissing with rain. It was still better than last year Artie remembered. Last year it had snowed. The radiator in his bedsit had burst. Setting a bowl under the drip he had found it full of ice by morning. He had seen them and fretting had tried to contact Mme Roux with her magic bullets.
            Collar tugged up, hands cupped around his fag for warmth Artie nearly died on the spot when streetlight shadows reached the toes of his brothel-creepers. One fat, one thin.
            “He thought we hadn’t seen him,” said Norvell.
            “He certainly didn’t,” said Arthur.   

The Absolute Arse Of Saxony, 1919. To Being A Wicked Bastard

He wished he’d taken up the offer of the goggles. Layered, padded and with gumboots to the knee he could not have clapped had he wanted to, and in the mittens would have made little sound anyway. The air was frozen, the air – and with not a cloud to be seen, nor anything else for a mile in each direction but for the horrid little truck Rockingham had provided – scratched Jeremiah’s eyes. The cab was about as well heated as it was sprung, and it certainly wasn’t sprung. A traction engine would have been slower but at least he could have hugged the boiler till his skin burned.
            It had not been hard to narrow down where the case had been thrown from the train. Jeremiah had spent half his school days calculating ‘if train a leaves station b, and station b is so many miles away, then where does train x pass train y, if...’ and to within a mile or so it was here. Or as best as he could navigate it with the map. Jeremiah hated it. He was to his shins in frozen mud that was not actually half-nearly frozen enough. It was nearly Christmas. He set off cursing the world and Lord Rockingham in particular. When he tripped on a hidden root he shouted aloud. When it took him three tries to get up again filthy, wet and stinking down his front he tried to find and kick the root in retaliation, hurting his foot in the process.
            But he did find the little hat, a bowler, battered and worn.
            Enough was most certainly enough. He turned about and as fast he was able hobbled back to the frightful little lorry. He would telegram Rockingham to say there was no sign of the case. And if Rockingham wanted Jeremiah back in a land where winter sports meant kicking a bloody heavy leather ball then he could bally well come out here and escort him back at gunpoint.

Bishopsgate, London. 1991. A Devil Put Aside For Me

Drowned by Bohemian Rhapsody the sight of Artie being held down by Norvell whilst being sawed at by Arthur had been silent. The saw had gone across and back, across and back in time to Queen. No, no, no, no, no, no, we will not let you go. The last stroke had jumped free of all resistance. Artie a smear of oil on wall and pavement was gone. Norvell and Arthur had nodded in unison to one another in beaming satisfaction. As one they had turned to stare back at Mme Roux who had been reluctant before to meet with Artie, but not half as much as she regretted it now.
            “It’s over,” she said.
            “I see a long woman,” said Arthur, “and a dark journey.”
            Mme Roux pointed up Bishopsgate, “Bear!”
            Both jumped, both looked, both looked back. Mme Roux was running and swearing at the lack of cabs. Not far to Liverpool Street she only had to keep ahead of the two fools for a minute, three at most. She thanked the weather for making her mind up earlier on heels. She cursed the time of day and London in general for its lack of available rakes to throw in her path. When a motorbike coming in the opposite direction drew up before her Mme Roux swerved only to skid when she saw the rider.
            The leathers were far too big. The boots comically oversized. The little hat, toothbrush moustache and savage little grin however had not changed. She backed away, made to turn but Norvell and Arthur arm-in-arm were a bare fifty yards away and closing. Back again to The Little Tramp she turned, trapped.
            Who held out a hand and in a thickly accented voice said, “Come with me if you want to live.”

Part Nine tomorrow: My Baby Shot Me Down

Wednesday 21 December 2011

Nicely Pink In The Middle, Part 7

How Old Is Mae West?

Berlin-Hamburger Bahn, 1919. No, What’s That? A Pub?

The coach banged on misaligned rails, unusual to Henry Lord Rockingham’s mind for if there was one thing he would say for the German it was that they did not sulk. A few days before he had witnessed a scrap between a handful of Freikorps and the... KPD, Spartacists, the little-league-of-uppity-bakers? It was rather difficult to tell. He had watched it briefly before returning to dress, picking plaster from his shaving bowl when by the sound of it a small field gun had been employed below.  Choosing the tweed and his father’s reliable shoes it had been some small while before he returned to the window. Shoes now on broken glass he had looked out to see that the fighting already passed people were in the street stacking bricks, quite extraordinary.
Henry liked the German, who was clean, orderly and honest even if to his mind then a nation of young men ready to grab with both hands a more exciting cause. He loathed the French and his time there had been a round of disturbing toilets, and so many variations on the language that the interminable hours in which the Rev. Dr Locke had drummed the language into him as a boy had been hours interminably wasted.
               The carriage bore no signs of ever having been used as a troop-transport though doubtless that had been the case. If it was sparse then it was tidy, rips stitched if not replaced and curtains by the fade collected from carriages wrecked to make up, here, a whole. Lord Rockingham would have preferred compartments but that had not been possible so he shared the carriage with others suited and talking just as quietly as he. To Jeremiah he said again, “You’ve down marvellous work, but it’s time to come home.”
            “Not sure of that,” said Jeremiah. A man more roguish than handsome Jeremiah had all the physical necessities for the sort of bluff adventurer Aunt Minerva was apt to cultivate. Despite that he had proven to have a remarkable mind, a weasel with a capacity for survival at odds with his appearance. He had been in Bode for some years, rather too long Rockingham had begun to suspect. This actually served the Lord well (who was trying his very hardest to make sure the devilish fellow did not in fact come anywhere near England again). Jeremiah had arrived breathless and alarmed, clutching the oiled leather case that sat now under Rockingham’s shoes. Having been given time to formulate his argument he said, “There’s definitely more afoot, people are up to something, deadly danger and artful peril, I couldn’t possibly return to England. Duty forbids.”
            “Also, certain debts?”
            Jeremiah ignored that. His sails full he pressed on, “Much as I long for England’s fog and capacity to make a pudding both hard and soggy at the same time, you need me back with the Bodes. Why Imric would just go to pieces without me. I taught him everything he knows of course. He’s a fool, but like a simple child that drools on your shoulder I feel a certain affection. He would starve without me.”
            “But all an act of course?”
            “No, no I assure you. All his great deeds are probably down to me.”
            Rockingham as pleased with the turn of the conversation as he was bored of playing it dug out the best card. He laid it down carefully, “But think of the women of Britain, Jeremiah. Think of your wife. Either of them.”
            Jeremiah ran a finger about his collar. “There is no flower finer than the English rose.”
            “I rather prefer her green orchids, but do carry on. I’m sure you’re going somewhere with this.”
            “What man of good statue and full trousers can resist the soft, doughy, stumpy delights of the matrimonial bed of England? Whilst outside the rain falls romantically, yet we inside a tiny house warm ourselves with endless weak milky tea. You’ve no idea,” said Jeremiah. He licked a finger to smooth one side of his neat moustache, “The differences in Bavaria. Why all the women there are far too tall. Their athletic legs pumping in daily exercise, the shorts... Oh god, the little shorts. Healthy, vital, with those simply awful thrusting bosoms, and they’re tall. So very tall.”
            “You mentioned how tall they were.”
            “And there’s no tea at all, only coffee, and the beers all nasty, and tasty. And they don’t have proper rainy hills you can walk up. Oh no, they’re so majestic you have to ski down them. And the women,” said Jeremiah, “are so very tall.”
            Having wandered down the train The Little Tramp sat beside Jeremiah, tipped his hat to Lord Rockingham, and held his face in horror when both men jumped to their feet and together squealed.

Clapham Common, 1979. Absolute Endings

 Jimmy Cooper cuffed at his tears angry with himself, his parka sleeve a schoolboy’s jumper. He hadn’t even got as far as Brighton. He hadn’t even got out of Clapham. Riding alone he had been pelted with beer cans by punks in Southwark, nearly skidding on the black ice. It weren’t right, none of it were right, the year was wrong and all the mods had gone. There had been something else, but nothing clear, but the pills had kept the whispering away. Crossing Clapham, drawn towards Brighton he had been smacked in the face then dragged from the road to the nearest tree by a fat man. A thin man had watched him, grinning, with a plank over one shoulder still quivering from the impact. None of them left a mark in the muddy slush of the common.
               Now the fat man held him down easily. It weren’t right, he was a mod. He was a face. He had rioted in Brighton (or would) he was a hard man, but he was just a boy to the fat man who knocked him down again and this time sat on his chest, pinned his arms and looked very happy with himself.
            “He certainly shouldn’t be here,” said Arthur who put aside the plank to take up a saw.
            “He certainly shouldn’t,” agreed Norvell.
            “He’s been taking pills, they make you half stupid,” Arthur flexed his saw, “If I took pills I’d be halfway clever.”
            Norvell tweaked Jimmy’s snotty nose, then broke it. He said, “You have a purpose.”
            “Do we have a purpose?” said Arthur.
            “We don’t have a dolphin certainly, and they’re easily confused.”
            “They certainly are. Why I once had a lawyer. He got me out of jail.”
            “With a dolphin?”
            “With a porpoise. It was a habeas porpoise.”
            Jimmy remembering, rallied, “I don’t wanna be the same as everyone else. That’s why I’m a mod, see? I mean you gotta be someone, ain’t you? Else you might as well jump in the sea and drown.”
            Norvell listened though with the broken nose he had to make Jimmy repeat himself four times. Each time the words came more quietly. Norvall preened. They had their man, or one of them. There were many nowadays, all the stories were about rebels. What was to be expected? Norvell and Arthur were exceptional. They did not know about Aunt Minerva nor that they were dago-types. They had never heard of the scratch, which to them did not have a name at all. They were exceptional because whilst dago-types had to killed as they had been (unless sometimes by something too tremendous to be plausible even for cliff hanger shorts) they being old and with so many sequels could ignore that. They had the power of ignorance. They also had a saw.
            Arthur and Norvell hummed the Dance of the Cuckoos as in great sweeps they sawed at Jimmy’s neck. The moment the head came free there was nothing of the little mod but a slick of oil in the snow. They had two more to see to and then they would... well, they did not know. Nothing until and again there was a need for them. Reprobates they had been given a responsibility, a task, and like many just like them when that was the case they went about it to the letter.

Berlin-Hamburger Bahn, 1919. Tomorrow The Birds Will Sing

It was not that Lord Rockingham was averse to a bit of rough adventure, but this was not it. He held out no hope that Jeremiah would arrive in the nick, no matter how loudly his agent had shouted that he was going for help (as he fled up the carriages). Rockingham had dashed in the opposite direction but clutching the case to his chest it had always been he that The Little Tramp would pursue. Running out of space at the luggage compartment a guard had announced that he was armed, and a jolly lucky thing it had been too else the locked door would have presented more of a problem. Rockingham made a note to send flowers to the guard, now stunned, with a depression on his forehead the exact size and shape of the silver knob on Rockingham’s cane.
            He had heard the tales of course but the reality was somewhat different. He had had bare minutes in the luggage carriage before finding he had then no further place to go had shot another lock and clambering on package cases and travelling trunks had made his way to the roof. There and kneeling, buffeted and choking on locomotive smoke he had fired a half magazine at The Little Tramp, pocketing the pistol when he saw it did him no good at all.
            Perfectly poised his hunter twirled a brolly, walking that swaying walk, untroubled as Rockingham was troubled. Another train was coming on fast from the other direction. Rockingham thought for a moment of knocking The Little Tramp into its path but The Little Tramp would dodge, even had Rockingham the confidence to press such an attack (which he most assuredly did not). The Little Tramp came close enough to touch, looked sad, but paused to applaud the Lord’s attempt. The trains crossed and Rockingham pitched the case in front of it.
            Almost The Little Tramp did not move. His face went wide in genuine, if exaggerated surprise. In the time it took him to jerk his head first one way one before the next he had already pitched himself after the case and determined on such a cause could not dodge the oncoming train.
            Lord Rockingham tried to see through the smoke of two locomotives. He thought he spied first the case and then a crushed bowler hat bounce down the rise of the tracks, but it was probably only his need giving colour to his imagination.

Part Eight tomorrow: If You Want To Live