“The Feast Of Stephen”
Saturday 5th January
As Adam Shaw and Martin McAlpine stepped outside the doors of JFK airport for the first time on the afternoon of January 6th, it felt as if the wind would rip their faces off and hang them on the telegraph wires on the other side of the street. The sky was blue, with a few snow clouds, but the temperature was way below freezing and the wind-chill made Adam wonder how he could possibly have packed so inappropriately. He started to do a mental inventory of the contents of his suitcase, and knew that it was full of things he wouldn’t need, and devoid of those he would. He buttoned his overcoat up to the neck, and covered his thinning hair with a woolen stevedore’s hat that he dragged from his pocket. He knew that the first thing he would have to do in the city was to buy gloves if he was going to go out at all. He had already lost most of the feeling in his hands. McAlpine looked at him with disdain from his own warm cocoon. He was wearing a green Bavarian Loden coat, and a red triple-ply cashmere scarf was wrapped tightly round his neck. A flamboyant fedora completed the ensemble, which threatened to take wing every time a new gust of wind assailed them.
It was the usual scrum for cabs outside, an approximation of a queue which no-one but the two Englishmen seemed inclined to acknowledge, with uniformed Port Authority officials blowing whistles and screaming officiously into Motorolas and pointing pointlessly, while burly men humped vast suitcases into the trunks of dilapidated Lincolns and Galaxies, and dollar bills were grudgingly handed over. Grown men with anxious faces fiddled with their mobile phones. Every five minutes the air was scorched by the sound of a Jumbo jet coming in to land, or taking off. Finally the two Englishmen were pushed towards a yellow cab and the programme of multicultural education began. The journey neatly encapsulated the ethnic diversity of New York as perfectly as if it had been assembled by McKinsey and Disney. The taxi was driven by a Sikh, and a tape-recording of a Jewish comedian welcomed them inside and told them to fasten their seat belts. They shouted the name of their hotel, The Iroquois, named after a Native American Indian tribe, through to the turbaned figure at the wheel. Soon they were making slow progress out of the airport, named after an Irishman, onto the Van Wyck Expressway, named after a Dutchman, through Queens, past the boarded-up snooker halls and the burned-out thrift shops, the pizza restaurants, the parking lots and the homeless black men huddled round a brazier, swaddled in rags, and onwards towards Manhattan. The billboards looming above them by the roadside, so vast, so crass, so crude to the British sensibility, made Adam smile with their idealisation of The American Way. They might just as well have announced, “You are now entering an irony-free zone.”
The lights were already on in the city, and as they approached the Queens/Midtown Tunnel they caught a glimpse of that view that never failed to make Adam feel nostalgic for this city, no matter how often he saw it. It held all the excitement for him now that it had done the first time he visited, mid-seventies, with his album starting to dent the US rock charts and the delicious feeling that everything was possible. The beautiful symmetry of the two elegant skyscrapers, William van Alen’s ravishing Chrysler building and its younger, plainer, loftier sister, The Empire State in midtown, balanced by the Twin Towers of the WTC, those sleek, brash, seventies downtown brats. He craned his neck for a better view, and even McAlpine was moved to say, “Isn’t that one of the modern wonders of the world?” Shaw agreed. He needed no convincing. “The Empire State was built in fourteen months. You can’t get a bathroom built in that time these days.” McAlpine continued. Another of those factoids he kept beneath his fedora.
The cab was swallowed into the gullet of the Tunnel, and gulped down into the flatulent, dyspeptic stomach of Midtown Manhattan. It was business as usual in the city. The Christmas trees were still lit, in among the festoons of the department store windows. Neon signs still wished their patrons “Happy Holiday” and “Festive Cheer”. The delis were still offering pastrami and salt beef, the salad bars loomed like oases under their fluorescent lights. The hawkers sold pretzels, chestnuts and hot dogs from their carts, and the waves of Saturday shoppers, hunched against the cold, headed home for warmth and refreshment.
Jahwinder Singh drove on regardless, heading ever westwards, while a tape of Sikh devotional music played in his head, and he chatted animatedly in Punjabi on his cell phone. Across Second Avenue, then Third, then gliding through the swank of Lex, Park and Madison. He crossed Fifth Avenue and drove West along W.43rd St. Took a right at Avenue of The Americas the another right into W.44th. Ten yards past The Algonquin, he pulled up hard outside The Iroquois. The Jewish comedian’s voice wished the Englishmen a pleasant stay in The Big Apple, and reminded them not to forget their baggage. Jahwinder Singh set their cases on the sidewalk and waited to be paid. McAlpine made no movement, except a slight curl of the lip as he gazed at the new Iroquois façade, and Adam dug deep inside his pockets for a sheaf of dollars he had exchanged at the airport. Each man picked up his own suitcase, watched from the warm interior of the hotel by an Armani-suited auxiliary.
“Fuck, this place has changed a bit,” Martin hissed to Adam once inside the lobby. “I told you,” Adam replied smugly as they entered. “It was right there that the bloke form Echo and the Bunnymen died.” McAlpine was pointing at huge floral display right in the middle of the lobby, perched on a repro Louis Seize table. Adam started to laugh, but was approached by a smooth young man with a peculiar walk.
“Welcome to The Iroquois hotel. My name is Toby. How can I help you today?” Toby was a gleaming testament to the twin religions of ortho-dentistry and weekly dermabrasion.
“We have a reservation. Two rooms, two nights in the name of Shaw and McAlpine.” Adam spoke, stifling his giggles.
Toby slid behind the reception desk and clicked away at his computer keyboard for a few seconds, Adam held his breath that his reservation had gone through. It was too cold to start walking the streets searching for a room. At last Toby smiled at the screen, perfect teeth and well groomed hair, and said “Mr. Adam Shaw and Mr. Martin McAlpine? You just arrived from London right?”
“Welcome. Would you like deluxe or superior rooms?”
“How superior to deluxe is superior?” asked McAlpine mockingly.
“Deluxe will be fine” Adam stepped in. He and Martin suffered from the classic malaise of the Englishman in New York: They understood the words, but not the meaning.
“Very good sir. May I have your MasterCard please, and your passports for registration.” Toby was all civility and service, Adam was responsive, but McAlpine always hated this process of registration and small talk. He grudgingly handed over his passport and stood by, theatrically disinterested.
“Rooms 807 and 1210. Room 1210 is the smoker’s room. Mister… Er?” He looked at the two for guidance. “Shaw,” said Adam, “I’m the smoker.” McAlpine looked at his companion in horror. “Since when?” he demanded to know.
“What?” asked Adam.
“Since when did you become a smoker?”
“Oh, only the occasional puff. Don’t worry” Toby looked at the odd couple, handed them two electronic card-keys, showed them to the elevator and told them their bags would be sent up. “It’s okay, we’ll take them ourselves.”
“Very good, sir. Enjoy your stay at The Iroquois.”
The elevator was quicker than they remembered it had been twenty-odd years earlier. It shot up to the eighth and McAlpine stepped out.
“Meet me in the bar in an hour. And call Quarterman and let him know we’ve arrived.” McAlpine was the mayoral candidate again, and was happy to give orders to Adam. Adam didn’t say anything as the elevator closed with a whisper, and he was transported to stress-free, bullshit-free silence for half an hour’s rest. It was blissful. He checked the bathroom, with its luxurious Frette robe and “complimentary Molton Brown bathroom amenities.” He studied the hotel brochure, read about an in-house fitness centre and Finnish sauna he would never see the inside of, and the Triomphe Restaurant where he would never dine. He switched on the TV, channel-hopped till he found BBC World and fell fast asleep on his bed having shed only his coat, hat and shoes.
A dream woke him. He imagined he was falling from a great height, and spinning giddily through the air as he fell. He was mid-fall when he woke. They say if you don’t wake from a dream in which you are falling, you will die when you land. Adam didn’t know quite how they had ever put that theory to the test. He sat bolt upright. The TV was still on but he didn’t see it. He was thinking about his fall, replayed the scene in his head, and knew at once where he had fallen. Over the cliff between Porto Santo Stefano and Porto Ercole, where he had thrown a stone eleven days previously. He reached for his suitcase, delved inside and pulled out a carton that contained ten packs of Marlboro full-strength cigarettes, which he had surreptitiously bought at Heathrow airport while Martin was inspecting a selection of silk ties at the Dunhill outlet. He broke open one of the packs, took out a cigarette and smoked it without moving from the bed. When he had finished he made two phone calls. The first was to Quarterman to say they had arrived. Quarterman didn’t answer, the call went straight to voicemail. Adam adopted that phoney American accent that all Englishmen of a certain age try on when they are in New York. Not so much the accent, but the idiom, and the inflection, and the music, which seeps into you uninvited. You become an unwilling host to a pernicious virus. “Hey Danny- How are ya? He said. “It’s Adam, Adam Shaw. Just to let ya know that we have checked into the Iroquois and are looking forward to brunch with you tomorrow in the Village. I am staying in room twelve-ten if you need me. Ciao.”
Then he phoned Amanda. She was out, too. It was 9.30 in the evening in London. “Hi, you two. It’s me. Just to say we arrived safely. Staying at the Iroquois, room twelve-ten if you need me. Phoning from the room is ruinously expensive so I will just say I love you both. Speak soon. Love you. Bye.” He hung up, dragged his exhausted body from the bed, undressed and walked to the shower and stood motionless, eyes closed, mouth agape, beneath it, face turned heavenwards, as it pummelled him from six directions. It restorative powers were little short of miraculous.
He shaved, moved his hair around on his head in an approximation of a style, put on a new shirt and fresh jeans and called down to room 807 to see if McAlpine was ready.
They met in the hotel bar, McAlpine smelling of his own Yardley’s cologne, Adam of Molton Brown.
“Did you get hold of him?”
“He was out. I left a voicemail.”
“Okay. Guess what? I’ve got the slogan,” McAlpine announced excitedly as he slid onto the bar stool next to Shaw. Shaw noticed that McAlpine had changed his clothes. He was wearing a tan corduroy suit with a blue shirt and a blue knitted tie. “It’s the best yet. Ready?”
“Hit me!” Adam knew that his job was, among an indefinable diversity of other things, to act as McAlpine’s sounding board.
“YOU CHOOSE!” McAlpine painted the two words in the air as he said them, complete with exclamation mark.
“I like it. I like it a lot.” Adam was serious. “It’s great. Says it all. Short enough to print big on posters and badges too- very important.”
McAlpine looked at him and said it again, “YOU CHOOSE!
Adam mouthed the mantra back to him, “You choose! It’s a winner, Martin. Underline the “you”?” he suggested.
“Good idea.” He painted the words in the air once more, bigger this time, more theatrically, and underlined the “you” with a flourish, as if he were scrawling graffiti on a wall. “Underlined, Yes. Good,” he agreed. “What will you have to drink?” A barman had laid out two coasters in front of them, and a bowl of Japanese rice crackers.
“Vodka Martini with a single olive.” Adam replied. The true test of any barman’s skill
“A vodka Martini with a single olive and a glass of champagne.” McAlpine ordered.
“So. You had any more thoughts about what we discussed on the plane?” Adam asked his boss. “Do you agree with the general vibe of the vid? Londoners talking you up. Saying what a top man you are. How you are genuinely going to make the quality of London life better. Bringing back fun to the Capital. Dancers, painters, cops and nurses. And the buzz words- Passion, Vision, Belief. And now with the slogan- You choose! A graphic, modern, different approach. The editing will be crucial.”
“Yes. We are agreed on all of that. And I will keep my mug off the screen for as much as possible!” The drinks arrived, and the barman passed the Martini test. They raised their glasses to each other and both said, “You choose!” as a toast. Adam smiled at McAlpine. He was sat so close to him that he noticed for the first time that the roots of The Candidate’s hair were actually silver. So were the hairs in his ears. Could it be that he was the only man in the world to deliberately dye his hair copper? He thought Amanda would die laughing if she knew that Brillo is actually steel wool beneath the copper coating. They drank two drinks each, went for a cheap dinner at a bad Italian restaurant in Theatreland, a nightcap in a bar on the way back, and were in their rooms by 10.30. Adam’s message light was blinking on the phone beside his bed. He retrieved the voicemails. One from Amanda saying goodnight. One from Danny Quarterman saying, “Meet you dudes in the Village Bakery and Coffee Shoppe on McDougal for brunch at 10.30 tomorrow, Sunday.” Adam played the message again and wrote down the address.
Martin McAlpine watched The Late News, and called up to Adam’s room. Adam was drinking a beer from the minibar and was smoking a cigarette, which he instinctively tried to hide when he heard Martin’s voice. “We have to call City Hall first thing on Monday and try to get a meeting with The Mayor before we catch our flight home. It would be an amazing photo op, him and me on the steps of City Hall. Make a note of that, okay? First call Monday, City Hall.”
“Okay” Adam was in no mood to argue.
“Night.” Adam finished his cigarette and caught the end of the same Late News item. “Zero tolerance” was not the most obvious policy statement that came to mind when he thought of Martin McAlpine.
In London Amanda was fast asleep when Joe came to her room at 4.30 in the morning sobbing, saying he couldn’t sleep because he was having nightmares, and he wanted to sleep in her bed. She knew that he was worrying about the imminent recommencement of school. She was too exhausted to argue, having only finally finished off her shoe designs at 2 am that night. The eight-year-old, clammy and shaking, slid under the duvet beside her where his father usually slept and drifted off.
Fifteen minutes away, in Brompton Road, a white delivery van was pulling up outside a medium-sized, family-run grocery store, newsagent and tobacconist. It would be another twenty minutes before Sanjay Patel and his wife Anita would come down from their small flat above the shop to take in the newspapers and the deliveries, and start marking the papers up for the paperboys to deliver. The driver of the van, a short weasel-faced man with a straggly ponytail, climbed down and set a small pile of newspapers in the doorway of the shop. He left the engine of the vehicle running as he made his delivery. He wore a crudely embroidered satinette bomber jacket and wide grey trousers that flapped in the chill early-morning wind. He moved swiftly between the shop and the van, his footsteps barely disturbing the silence. The second time he carried something by its handle, a container of some sort. He set that down at his feet. He looked around once, up and down the street, and crouched in the doorway. The occasional taxi sped past, its For Hire light extinguished, the driver heading home. The odd truck rumbled by, delivering burgers, or beer, or begonias. To the naked eye in the gloom it looked as if the diminutive runt was methodically posting the newspapers one by one through the shop’s low letterbox. He then seemed to be forming a conical shape out of one of the newspapers. He picked up the container and unscrewed its top, then carefully raised it, and tipped it towards the door, lifting the letterbox while he did so, draining it of its contents through the inverted paper cone. He screwed the top on again and put it down beside him. He thrust his hands into his jacket pocket, and pulled something out of the right one. A book of matches. He lit one, held it for a second to catch fire fully, then lit a twist of paper and pushed it though the letterbox. There was a flash from within the shop, then a bright orange glow, and he ran back to his van and sped off towards Knightsbridge.
It was another ten minutes before Sanjay Patel, a thirty-eight-year-old Ugandan Indian, was woken by the sound of a burning shelf crashing to the floor, and the acrid smell of burning confectionary coming from his shop below. He put on his dressing gown and ran down the stairs, three at a time, his shouts waking Anita and his nine-year-old daughter, Samiya, as he descended. Unbolting the door, which separated the shop from the staircase up to the flat, he was confronted by a blaze that had already destroyed two-thirds of the shop’s interior, and also made any escape through the shop’s door to the street impossible. The heat and smoke made him recoil. “Call the Fire Brigade! The bloody shop’s on fire. Nine, Nine, Nine, Nita! Quickly, quickly!” he shouted up to Anita who was at the top of the stairs, barefoot in her silk dressing gown and nothing else. He filled a saucepan from a tap in the tiny kitchen at the rear of the shop and flung its contents into the blackened shop. It was a pointless gesture, but he felt compelled to do something. The lights downstairs no longer worked, and only the blazing fittings illuminated him. “”Have you called them?” he shouted up the stairs, “What did they say?” She shouted something down to him, but the roaring fire cauterized the meaning from her voice. He threw another saucepan of water into the smoke, but it was an irrelevance, so fiercely had the fire taken hold now. “It’s like pissing into the bloody wind.” Sanjay said to himself. Once again he heard Anita’s voice, but this time it was a desperate, curdled scream, which needed no interpretation or translation.
He raced upstairs to find Anita at the doorway to Samiya’s bedroom. The door was open but thick black choking smoke was billowing from within. The child’s room was at the front of the house, directly above the shop, and the smoke had permeated the ceiling below and seeped through the floorboards. Her bed was near the window, and the smoke was so thick that it was impossible to make out the Lord of The Rings duvet cover, let alone the child. Like an explorer hacking his way through he densest jungle, Sanjay Patel held the hem of his dressing gown to his face to filter the smoke with one hand, and waved the other furiously in the air, feeling his way through the toy-strewn room, stumbling occasionally, cursing as he tripped on a doll, his bare feet scorched whenever they stopped still for a second. “Bloody fucking sprinklers didn’t work, did they?” he said to no-one but himself, as he slowly made progress across the room. By sheer instinct he found his daughter’s bed, and thrust in his hands, as if into a bran tub. He pulled out a lifeless doll. He turned on his heels and pelted across the room towards his hysterical wife, his daughter in his arms, seemingly fast asleep.
“Where’s the bloody Fire Brigade, Anita? Where are they?” Sanjay was frantic as he carried his daughter through to the living room at the back of the house. Anita had no thoughts for anything but her daughter; she started to shake her. “Wake up, darling. Wake up, it’s alright. Mummy and Daddy are here. Wake up Sammi. There’s a good girl.” But Sanjay knew the signs, and so did Anita, The little girl had inhaled too much of the filthy, clogging smoke while she was sleeping, and now needed urgent medical treatment. The parents stroked her, wiping dust and debris from her tiny brown face, and stroking her hair. It seemed like an age before the first fire engine arrived, but in actual fact in was eleven minutes after Anita’s call. They heard its siren shatter the cold, quiet dawn and saw the revolving blue light through the smoke outside.
Three firemen burst in through the shop entrance, the door was already so badly burned that it offered little resistance to their combined weight. The first thing they smelled was petrol. They needed no special training for that. Their radios crackled and fizzed. They shouted through the shop and up the stairs. “Anybody in here? Is there anybody here? Shout if you can hear us.”
Sanjay and Anita could hear, and they screamed down to the men. “Yes. Upstairs. Hurry please. Up here. It’s our little girl. Quickly, please.” By now the blaze in the front of the shop was fierce, but had not reached the stairs that led up to the accommodation above. The firemen had breathing apparatus with them, and worked with precision and dispassionate professionalism. Their principle job was to get the people out of the building alive and, like a team of surgeons removing a troublesome appendix, they were clinically efficient.
“How many people here?” one barked the question as he got to the top of the stairs. “Three” shouted Sanjay. “Myself, my wife and our little girl.”
“Where is she?”
“Right here, but hurry, She needs help.” One of the firemen took the child firmly but tenderly in his arms, put a breathing mask over her face and hurried downstairs. Another took Anita by the arm and guided her purposefully towards safety. All the while keeping up a conversation with a controller on the outside. Sanjay was able to walk downstairs unaided, and was saying to the fireman “What’s the point of spending hundreds of pounds on a bloody sprinkler system if it doesn’t bloody well work? The bloody sprinklers failed.”
In the ambulance outside, two medics worked feverishly trying to revive Samiya, but one of the green-clad figures, a veteran of so many tragedies, knew that this was not a story with a happy ending. Despite the respirator, the child’s lungs stubbornly refused to function. He looked at his colleague, younger, less battle-hardened, and whispered, “We’re too fucking late aren’t we? We’ve lost this one.” Just then, as if in an awful 1920’s tearjerker, Sanjay and Anita arrived at the ambulance together. Shivering in their dressing gowns, hopelessly inappropriately dressed for the bitter dawn, their blazing home reflected in their eyes, Sanjay asked, “Is she going to be alright?” The medics looked at each other, neither wanting to speak. “The bloody sprinklers failed.” Sanjay told them. It had become a mantra.
They had lain the girl on the wheeled stretcher. She looked so peaceful. So pretty. She was wearing a pair of Jungle Book pyjamas, still clutching a soft toy bear. At last, the more grizzled medic spoke. “I am afraid we weren’t able to save your daughter. She inhaled too much smoke.” Sanjay and Anita didn’t hear anything else the man went on to say. Anita let out the most appalling, terrifying scream, the scream of the universal mother losing her child. It stopped the entire rescue operation for a second, so dreadful and pitiful was it. The eyes of the younger medic started to fill. He bit his lip to try to stop crying, but to no avail. The tears started to fall and his whole body shook with his quiet sobbing. His partner put a hand on his arm and led him outside, leaving Sanjay and Anita alone with their pain.
John Bleach parked his white delivery van in his allotted parking bay, locked it hurriedly and scuttled across the forecourt of the Southwark council block like a beetle. Once inside his dingy one bedroomed flat, he pulled a quarter bottle of scotch from his pocket, broke the seal on the cap and took a hit. He lifted the phone and dialled. Beside a hotel bed in New York, a mobile phone rang. A nasal voice, clearly just woken and trying to sound otherwise, said “Hello?”
“Done it.” Bleach sounded triumphant.
“Who is this?” asked McAlpine, sitting up now, and switching on the light. It was only a quarter to one, but McAlpine had been out cold.
“It’s me. Johnny. I’ve just given the Pakis a housewarming present.” He giggled, as he poured himself a drink into a chipped cup. He was prowling around his sparsely furnished room, juking and bouncing, and occasionally peered through the net curtains. He took the last cigarette from a pack, lit it, crumpled the box and threw it into the corner of the tiny room. “I think your lady-friend will be getting her shop quite soon”.
“What the fuck are you talking about? What have you done?” Martin went cold. He knew Johnny Bleach was a coldhearted sadist who hurt people for fun. But McAlpine had been clear in his instructions to him. Pressure, yes. Intimidation, up to a point. But violence and criminal behaviour that might be traced back to McAlpine was out. Bleach had owed McAlpine a favour ever since he came out of prison and McAlpine had set him up as a minder and general road manager to one of his acts. Although he seemed to be just skin and bone, he had the indefinable aura of a hard man, someone unpredictable, with whom it would be wisest not to tangle. He bristled with nervous energy, much of which was expended on gnawing his nicotine- stained fingernails to the quick.
“Just gave them a little hint that they’re not welcome, and that they should make alternative business arrangements a.s.a.p. Hehehe.” His giggle was like a death rattle. “They’ll be needing to print up some new business cards quite soon!” The ash fell from his cigarette onto his stained pants. A cat nuzzled around his ankles, one of two toms responsible for the nauseating stench that permeated every corner of the flat.
Martin was growing exasperated by Bleach’s cryptic answers and his vague insinuations. “I want to know exactly what you did, John. What did you do?” Martin’s voice was measured and businesslike.
“Just poured a little petrol though their letter box and threw in a match. Won’t do much harm but they’ll get the message. It will save all that talking about tenants rights and all that bollocks. Had to up the ante.”
Martin McAlpine felt a dark feeling of foreboding. He didn’t like what he had just heard, and was already beginning to regret involving John Bleach in his plans to take possession of the Brompton Road premises for his girlfriend’s use. But there was nothing he could do about that now.
“Are you sure no-one saw you?”
“Positive. I was in and out like a rat up a pipe.” An apt image. McAlpine could see that rodent-like Bleach in his mind’s eye.
“Okay. Well, lay low and stay out of trouble. I will be back in London on Tuesday morning. Speak then.” Martin closed the flap on his mobile and set it down again on the bedside table. He looked at his watch. He still had the chance to get six hours sleep, but the call from Bleach had disturbed him, and he lay awake with the light on for an hour, motionless but deeply troubled.
That night Martin didn’t sleep another wink. He was kept awake by a combination of the anxiety that his chat with Bleach had engendered, and the night-long musique concrete of New York City. The metallic hoots, the electronic bleeps, the burps, the klaxons. The hissing, breathing, wheezing, screaming soundtrack. The groaning of an insomniac, narcissistic giant wracked with self-doubt.
Adam lay awake too, smoking cigarette after cigarette, until he eventually drifted off, with the light from a TV show still flickering in his room. He was woken by an unidentifiable rhythmic noise, like an echoey metallic hacking cough. Regular as metronome. He lay for ten minutes trying to identify it, eliminating hammering, drilling and traffic noise. Eventually he could stand it no longer and got up and went to the window. He witnessed a miracle. New York City was white. It had snowed all night, and every flat surface in the city was covered. A solitary mittened municipal worker was scraping snow off the sidewalk with a huge metal square-ended snow-shovel, making enough noise to waken the dead. Only in New York, he thought. Only in New York, where as the householder you are responsible for the safety of pedestrians walking on your little piece of pavement, would someone think that 4.30 am was an appropriate time to make that much noise.
Sunday 6th January
The racket continued, and was then multiplied, as other janitors, caretakers and housewives in the street took their shovels from broom cupboards and went to work. Adam called room service for coffee, then called Amanda again.
The phone rang three times and Joe answered. “Hello”.
“Hi Joe. It’s Daddy. How are you?”
“I’m okay. Mummy and me went to a pantomime last night.”
“Wow! How was that?”
“Bit boring. Where are you?”
“In New York. It’s five o’clock in the morning here and guess what?”
“What?” asked Joe. He really couldn’t be bothered to guess what.
“It’s snowing. Really heavily. I am looking out from my hotel window and everything is white.”
“Wow! Bring some back for me to make a snowman.” Joe’s request sounded reasonable enough.
“I’ll try. Is Mummy there?”
“Yes. Hold on.” He heard Joe’s voice calling “Mum! It’s Dad. It’s snowing.” Amanda took the phone.
“Hi. How are you?” Her voice always sounded good. “I called you once last night but by the time we got in Joe was exhausted. Georgie and Sarah put on their New Year pantomime at their studio. It was great fun but Joe wasn’t in the mood.” She got up to shut the bedroom door. “I think he’s worried about school restarting. I had to finish off the shoe designs and didn’t get to bed till 2.”
“Poor love.” Adam could imagine how exhausted Amanda was. “I haven’t slept much either. New York is so noisy compared with London. I am on the twelfth floor but still hear any conversation that is happening in the street. And it’s snowing, so they are all out there now with their shovels.” There was a knock on the door.
“Hold on, Man. Someone at the door.” He smoothed the bed and his hair. “Come in.” Another well-groomed young man, who looked like a clone of Toby, let himself into the room and set down a tray of coffee next to the bed. Adam signed for it and palmed a wrinkled dollar bill from the bedside table. The young man thanked him a wished him a nice day.
“Hi. Sorry about that. I ordered some coffee.”
“Okay. Have you had your meeting with Quarterman yet?” Amanda asked.
“Brunch this morning in The Village. Brillo has come up with a slogan of pure genius. “You choose”. What do you think?”
“You choose? Yea- it’s pretty good.” Amanda was slightly distracted by the flickering TV screen in the corner of her bedroom room. The morning news was showing some hand-held footage of McAlpine’s main rival, Dr Fatimah Ali. “Oh, your competition is on TV.” She said to Adam.
“Really? And what is the lovely Fatimah doing? Promising the earth or condemning the wicked?” Amanda used the remote to turn up the sound on the set.
“Neither. She seems to be visiting the scene of a fire. Looks like a shop. Now she’s gone.” The news item finished, and Amanda clicked the remote to switch off the TV so she wouldn’t keep getting distracted. She knew how much anything less than her total attention annoyed Adam when he phoned from a hotel room the other side of the world.
“ So Joe starts back at school tomorrow?”
“Yes. I think he’s dreading it, but doesn’t want to talk about it. Whenever I mention it he clams up or gets moody. I think we may have to get him some professional help.”
“Maybe. We’ll see how he goes this week. I shall be back Tuesday. I better go and prepare our pitch for Mr. Q. I love you.”
“Call me when you land. Good luck.”
“Thanks. Kiss Joe from me.”
“I will. Bye.” She hung up.
“That wasn’t too bad,” Adam thought.
Adam poured himself a cup of coffee and lit his first cigarette of the morning. He thought about Amanda and Joe, then about Stephen Even and his dream of falling. Amanda poured herself a cup of tea and thought about Joe and Adam, then wondered why she hadn’t heard a word from Stephen Even since his enigmatic e-mail before Christmas. She went to her computer, logged on and called the message up onto the screen again. It read, “Merry Christmas Man. Off on a mystery trip. Got to get my head together. I am fucking up over my work, my life and us. Sorry to do this to you. I know I am a cunt. Might bump into you, might not. Love, whatever that is, STEPHEN.” She was glad that she had made the decision she had made back in the autumn. She had missed two consecutive periods since the summer holiday at the house in Italy and the do-it-yourself pregnancy test confirmed her fears. She had only made love to Stephen once that holiday, while Adam and Joe were swimming and she and Stephen were preparing lunch up at the house. Stephen had been so relentless in his furtive pursuit of her, the audacious touches and dangerous glances in the kitchen, the flirting at dinner, the stroking under the table, the compliments and the attention. She had been worn down and surrendered to his persistence. Not knowing if the baby was Adam’s or Stephen’s, and suspecting it was Stephen’s and not prepared to take the chance of giving birth to a monster, she chose life- her own. It wasn’t difficult to tell the little lie to Adam and Joe that Mummy had to go away for a couple of days to meet a man about some shoe designs. She considered her position now and decided that, whoever the child’s father was, she had done the best thing.
Adam worked on ideas and budgets for three hours, and then slept for half an hour. He was showered, shaved and dressed when Martin phoned his room. “Ready to rock and roll?” he asked
“Yep” Adam answered.
“Meet you in the lobby in five then.”
Adam put on his coat and gathered his portfolio of ideas, his phone, his cigarettes and his cash from beside his bed. When he got to the lobby. McAlpine was already looking peevish. “Sleep okay?” Adam asked.
“Dreadful. This hotel is so noisy.”
“It’s not the hotel, Martin, it’s New York. It is totally deafening. And the noises you hear are so different from the noises of London, we could be on another planet.”
They managed to hail a taxi on 5th Avenue, which slid grudgingly to a halt. It slithered and lurched its way downtown like a drunk, sloshing through six inches of snow towards Washington Square and on to McDougal Street. Adam told the driver the address, and the two settled back in the battered leather seat.
“I just spoke to Amanda. She said the lovely Doctor was on the news this morning.”
“On the news? Fuck. What was she doing? Singing Hare Krishna in a skimpy bikini? Opening a Tandoori restaurant?” Nothing brought out the beast in McAlpine like the mention of Dr Fatimah Ali.
“No. Man said she was at the scene of a fire. A burned-out shop, apparently.”
“Burned out shop? Where?”
“Dunno. She didn’t say. They’re usually in Southall or Ealing, aren’t they?” McAlpine grunted and turned to look out of the window. He felt he was turning white.
Thereafter they chatted little as they progressed, but rather gazed through the taxi’s windows. McAlpine lost in dread and foreboding, Adam mesmerized and overawed by the magic of New York in the teeth of a blizzard. “Everyone here has a story,” Adam muttered, to himself as much as to the taciturn Candidate. “Everyone’s a star in his own movie. Road sweepers and senators, bankers and hookers, they all see themselves as the central character in a soap. You hear it in the urgency of their speech, in the music of their voices. It’s incredible. In London we are all too self-effacing to think we are important, but here they are all cock of the walk.” McAlpine, not known for his own self-effacement, grunted in agreement, and watched an old Jewish woman, swathed in scarves, a hat perched atop her black and silver hair, and galoshes on her stockinged feet. She stood in the two-step walk-up to her apartment building and scattered salt from a sack onto the steps and the pavement at her feet. A few pigeons milled around thinking she was scattering corn for them, but soon lost interest and took wing.
“They would do a sitcom about that old bird there,” Adam continued, seeing the object of McAlpine’s gaze. “Thelma Ritter or someone like that would play her and the Yanks would love her. She would dispense chicken soup and pearls of wisdom round her kitchen table, still dressed in her scarves and galoshes. She would have her own fashion range, write recipe books and be an agony aunt and columnist. In London she’s just a pest.”
They arrived at The Village Bakery and Coffee Shoppe around 10.15. They divested themselves of their coats and sat at a table by the window. Both ordered coffee, and Adam told the blonde waitress they would wait for their friend before ordering from the brunch menu. Across the road he spied a small knitted-clothing stall, and hurried out to buy himself some gloves. He had big hands, and was restricted in his choice to those few pairs that were his size. He found a black woolen pair for six dollars which just about fit. Immediately he felt better. He rejoined McAlpine in the coffee shop and sipped from his vast steaming mug. McAlpine looked despairingly at the cheap gloves his campaign manager had bought and said, “Fucking hideous.”
A taxi spun to a halt outside, but the passenger and the driver seemed deep in conversation. Gradually it became clear that they were not having a discussion, but an altercation. Adam and McAlpine watched through the steamed-up window as they two men gesticulated and cursed each other. The passenger, dressed in a red and white leather biker’s jacket and black leather pants, Yankees cap and shades, got out, threw a few dollars on the ground in the general direction of the cab, and called the driver a cocksucker and walked towards the coffee shop. The driver, a burly black man around 40, built like a middleweight and wearing a multicoloured ethnic beanie hat and a fistful of large rings, got out of the cab, picked up the dollars from the snow and ran after the man in leathers. He jumped on his back, spun him round and punched him twice to the floor. He knocked the cap and glasses off, told him not to mess with him again and called him a motherfucker. He got back in the cab and drove off, still screaming at the fallen man. From where they sat in the window, Adam and McAlpine instantly recognized the trademark shaved and tattooed head of Danny Quarterman, as he got to his feet. He brushed the snow from his leathers and put his cap and shades back on, and came into the coffee shop, still swearing and bleeding heavily from his nose.
Adam and McAlpine got to their feet as he entered, and thrust our their hands. “You okay?” asked Adam solicitously, “What was all that about?”
“Fucking cocksucking white niggah! He’s lucky I didn’t fucking kill him.”
“What happened?” McAlpine and Adam asked simultaneously, ablaze with curiosity.
“Flagged the motherfucker down on 24th and 9th. All the way here he had the cassette player playing Johnny Mathis. I said “Hey, Dude, do me a favour, change the fucking tune.” Told him that shit is white man’s black music. I was real courteous, not dissing him at all. It was just unbearable. Hey! Bring me some coffee, Alice,” he called to the petite waitress who had served Adam and McAlpine. “And a towel, sweetheart.” His accent was pure Brooklyn. It was the first time he had drawn breath since his entrance. He was dabbing at his nose with a succession of paper napkins, and piling them up on the table. The assemblage looked like viscera. McAlpine watched him, aghast. Quarterman continued, unabashed. “I told him to either change the music or switch it off. Told him he was disgrace to black brotherhood, listening to that milk-sop sell-out. Told him to play Jay-Z or The Klan, and he said that hip-hop is not his bag. Not his bag, man. Cunt. I made a grab through the window for the control of his cassette player, man. Just wanted to kill the music. The motherfucker bit my hand.” He showed his hand- there was a whole set of teeth marks, upper and lower jaw, as if the hand had been snapped by a three inch bear-trap. “Motherfucker drove the last eight blocks with my hand in his mouth.” He massaged the wound.
“Well, I must say that was quite an entrance.” Adam tried to lighten the moment. “We are very pleased that you could find the time to meet us, Danny. I am Adam Shaw, and this is Martin McAlpine, mayoral candidate for London.”
“Pleased to meet you, gentlemen. Welcome to the zoo.” His speech was calmer now, less frenetic, but still edged with menace. “The eggs Florentine here are the best in New York.”
“Sounds fine.” Said Adam. McAlpine nodded agreement.
“Three Fiorentini, sweetheart.” he called to Alice, “and a Jack, straight up. You drinking, fellas?”
“Coffee’s fine for me.” McAlpine opined
“Bloody Mary, spicy.” Adam said, and Danny relayed his order to Alice. She was a punky girl with a cute dirty-blonde crop and a rose-in-barbed-wire tattoo on her left hand. Quarterman took out a pack of small cigars and laid them on the table. This was one of the few bars where you could still smoke in New York. He proffered the pack. Martin declined, Adam accepted. They lit up, the coffee arrived, and the meeting started.
Adam opened his portfolio, and laid it out on the adjacent table. “As I think I mentioned to you on the telephone, both Martin and myself have been long-term admirers of your work, both in the fields of music video and feature film. We both saw Bliss in the London Film Festival what, 4 years ago now? And we thought it was a stunning feature-length debut.”
McAlpine took up the baton. “It’s a stunning film by any critical yardstick you care to use. Better even than the book, which I loved. It still plays a lot in membership cinemas in London. I would like to sweep aside all the censorship bullshit in London and bring the city into the 21st century. The arts are part of my platform, and artists are my constituency.” He was looking directly into Quarterman’s eyes, in an approximation of sincerity. “I am climbing the same hill as you, Danny. I have done the apprenticeship. The rocking and rolling. That’s why I have moved from the entertainment industry to the industry of politics. I am giving myself five years to make a difference. Five years.”
“Five years is a lifetime,” said Quarterman, grinning across the table at McAlpine.
“You’re right, my friend. You’re right. Five years is forever.” Martin was transfixed by his huge tombstone teeth, one at the front set with a citrine, so that it looked like a fried quail’s egg. “That’s why there is not a moment to waste.”
The eggs Florentine arrived. “The most perfect brunch dish ever devised by man.” Quarterman announced, theatrically. “The elixir for all ills, self- induced or imposed by God.” On the gleaming white plate the perfect poached eggs sat proudly on the gentle mound of spinach. The white sauce that smothered them was generous, creamy and soothing. The eggs were cooked faultlessly, so that their yolks to the most delicate touch of the fork, and bled orange over the green hill, like the sunrise. “Fresh spinach, that’s the secret. None of that frozen shit.” Quarterman confided. “And can you taste the mystery ingredient?” Adam and McAlpine gazed blankly ahead, like ruminating cattle, hoping their palates would furnish them with inspiration.
“Nutmeg?” McAlpine suggested, speculatively.
“Oregano.” Adam was stating a fact, not a conjecture. He tasted the merest hint of that most Italian of herbs, and it was a masterful addition.
“Bingo! A true epicurean!” Danny slapped Adam’s back admiringly. “You say or-e-GA-no, we say o-REG-a-no, but either way- you got it. That’s what makes this dish immortal!”
Adam grinned. McAlpine grimaced. He always fancied himself as a gourmet and had been outgunned here by Adam. A small humiliation. Of course it was oregano, how could he have missed it?
The three men ate silently, savouring the flavours. Egg yolk ran down Quarterman’s chin. He mopped its descending trickle with a slice of wheat toast and ate the toast. His nose had almost stopped bleeding too. The day was getting better.
“You ever been to London, Danny?” McAlpine asked at last.
“Yep. Once, when I was at college. July 1978. Loved it. Saw the Clash at The Music Machine, Camden Town.” He started singing “White Boy in Hammersmith Palais” and for a while this testosterone-charged wounded animal was a teenager again. “Steve Jones from the Sex Pistols joined them onstage for the encores. They played White Riot, I’m So Bored with The USA and Janie Jones. I thought I had died and gone to heaven, man! It was a fucking blast of a night. Best rock and roll gig ever. My friends from New York, the band Suicide, supported them. They were awesome. You know Alan Vega’s a fucking artist now?”
“We’re all artists now, Danny!” McAlpine interjected sardonically. “We’re all curators too. We are all consumers. We are all fucking pick and mixers- that’s our culture. We’re all shoppers. The next big thing is shopertainment We live in an eventless society. A post-Warhol world. Forget hope! We are all climbing the hill.” He gazed at the floor as he spoke, like a child reciting something learnt by heart.
McAlpine’s weird evangelical rants appealed more and more to Quarterman’s sensibility.
“You’re a funny guy, Martin. Very funny guy. I’d vote for you!”
“But how do we get the rest of England to? That’s our project, right?”
“London, just London.” Adam corrected.
“But London IS England, right?”
Neither Martin nor Adam knew which part of that question needed answering. They looked at each other, then both agreed uncertainly in unison. “Right.”
“What you have to understand, Danny, as a Yank,” Martin was looking at Quarterman again, “Is that London is a city of eight, ten million people. Cities are made up of individuals. Aberrant, deviant, antisocial behaviour is tolerated, even encouraged, in cities, because cities have learned to turn a blind eye. A city couldn’t function the way that a village functions- all that curtain twitching and garden-fence gossip would cause a city to overheat and explode. So the city just looks the other way. I make my appeal to the individuals of the City, in the knowledge that they are the true majority. The people on the margins ARE the mainstream. The gayboys and playboys, the fly-girls, the bunny-boilers, the freaks, the weirdoes, the whackos, the psychos, the tossers, the losers, the divs, the fags, the footie hooligans, the Paki-bashers, the minicab drivers, the kebab-eaters…” he was off again and Adam realized that McAlpine had learned this new speech by heart, though “Paki-bashers” was a worrying new addition to the litany. And Adam could see that Danny Quarterman was spellbound, as if he was listening to Jeremiah or Job. The individual words were no longer registering, but the music, the sound, the cadence of McAlpine’s poetry were hitting all the marks. Quarterman imagined the speech was a rap, and as he supplied his own drum loops and break beats in his head, it dawned on him that he knew exactly how he was going to shoot the promo vid. He would treat the mayoral candidate in precisely the same way as he would treat a bad-ass rap artist. The vid would be muscular, bold, iconoclastic and, above all, sexy. Martin McAlpine as the first true prophet of the New Millennium. A man who speaks unto nations, and leads the chosen ones to the Promised Land.
McAlpine was still going, though, “…the pervs, the yogis, the joggers, the chatroom saddos, the petty crooks, the black marketers, the car-booters, the booze-cruisers, the graffiti kids, the tax dodgers, the fare dodgers, the drunks, the druggies,” he was spitting out the credo, “…. There are four columns to my candidacy. The columns are trust, passion, belief, and vision. Four Columns, one man. Without those four elements, the citadel crumbles and returns to dust. The other candidates will promise much. Only one will deliver. You choose! You choose! You choose!” Martin was sweating with religious zeal. A preacher transported by his own sermon. Adam and Danny were his congregation. Alice stood immovable. The chef had come out to listen, and, three tables away, a party of brunchers had abandoned their own conversation to listen to McAlpine’s gospel. After the third “You choose!” the entire restaurant broke into spontaneous applause and cries of “Hallelujah!” McAlpine knew he was onto something. So did Adam. And Danny Quarterman knew that he wanted in, too. He was on his chair now, getting in on the act, maintaining the fervour, feeding the fire, shouting “You choose! You choose!” and pointing to each table in turn, He was sweating and bleeding from his nose again. The veins stood out on his temple like Braille. He held the pose. Eyes screwed up and gazing heavenward, arms outstretched in mock crucifixion. Then he too slumped back into his chair, a huge smile on his face.
“Reverend McAlpine, Pastor Shaw,” he announced in a cod southern accent, “Ah wan’ y’all to know that you good gennelmen and mahself are singing from the same hymn-sheet! Yessir! Hal-lay-loo!”
McAlpine grinned and sipped from his coffee to let the room know he was finished. The fished was hooked, now Adam had to reel him in.
“We need to move quickly on the film, Danny,” Adam took over, as he and Martin had arranged he would. He deliberately called it a film, not a video. It sounded better. “Obviously we need to shoot it in London, and soon. We will pay your airfare, your hotel, 500 dollars a day cash for each twelve-hour day you film or edit. We imagine two shooting days, one day recording Martin’s voiceover, and four of five editing days. We will, of course, pay all production costs. While we are aware that, for a director of your reputation, the job makes no financial sense whatever, we are able to offer some in-kind top-up inducements. If Martin is elected Mayor, we will promise you a complete retrospective of your films at a prestigious London venue, PLUS a guaranteed place on the jury of The London International Film Festival this year. Oh, and dinner at City Hall.” He added with a smile.
“Seven-fifty” Quarterman barked after a moment’s contemplation.
“Seven-fifty, not five hundred a day. Seven-fifty and we shake on it now.”
“Six hundred” Adam offered.
“Seven. Don’t fuck with me.”
“Six-fifty. You cunt. Done.” Quarterman roared with laughter and shook hands with Adam and Martin in a complicated, Masonic black street-handshake. Martin looked bemused as he tried to follow Quarterman’s movements. Adam looked delighted to have done the deal, within budget too. He would have gone to seven-fifty. “And you’ll be able to see James Haden-Pym’s new gallery while you are visiting London. Check out the space.” Adam was happy to offer that particular carrot- it didn’t cost him a penny.
“Yea. Nice idea. I’ll do that. So when?”
“You tell us. What are your commitments?”
“Well, I can move a few around maybe.” He took a Palm Pilot from the pocket of his leathers, and switched it on, and started tapping at it frantically with his stylus. “Today’s the 7th, right? I gotta be here all this week. Editing a short. Next Sunday is the 14th. How about I come to you next Sunday morning, catch the Saturday night flight out from JFK. Sunday and Monday pre- production and prepping. Shoot Tuesday, Wednesday, maybe Thursday as cover, but probably Thursday will be Martin’s day of glory. Then editing. Finish it the following weekend. Get back here for 23rd.”
“What about Redford and Sundance?” Adam asked.
Danny had momentarily forgotten that particular little lie which had proved so effective on the young female film student a few days previously. “Oh, that may not be working out this year. The dates aren’t good for me, and Bob would rather I did it next year.” Danny made a mental note to himself: “Always remember which lie you tell, and to whom.”
“Good for us.” Adam was also checking his personal organizer. “Okay with those dates, Martin?”
“As long as it is ready to unveil at the launch party on the 6th of February, I am fine with those dates. You won’t need me for all of them anyway, I suspect.”
“That’s right.” Adam agreed, eager to keep him out of the way as much as possible.
Quarterman was enthused. “I already know what I want to do with you guys. Martin’s rap, with full-on music track. Gonna make it fast cut, full of great images, the people you mention, firemen, beauty queens, artists, all looking cool, all talking you up. “McAlpine’s the guy for London”. That sort of thing. Sexy. No-one has ever used sex to sell politics before. It sells everything else, why not politics? Let’s put tits and ass to work.” Martin and Adam agreed nervously. He was talking sense, but he was also saying the unspeakable.
“You are SO right.” said McAlpine. And that was it. Martin decided this wasn’t the time to broach the subject of DOCO, his Deportation of Offenders to Country of Origin idea, with Danny Quarterman. He would slip that into his rap in London. The fact that Danny had just been punched out by a black guy might make him more amenable to the delicacies of racial politics, Martin thought.
For the rest of the brunch the three spoke about music, movies, books and painting. They found they had so much common ground, so many shared references, that to discuss the finer details of the video was unnecessary. They had bonded in a moment of transcendental communion, in which, as children of the sixties, McAlpine and Shaw trusted implicitly. Adam matched Quarterman drink for drink, while McAlpine sipped on a white wine spritzer, pursed his lips and tried to turn the conversation back to himself. Occasionally a customer would leave the coffee shop and smile conspiratorially at the table, as though they had been part of a historic moment and wanted to let the trio know that they knew. At one o’clock the deal was done, arrangements agreed in broad outline, and the meeting was concluded. Quarterman stepped out onto the street and started walking towards SoHo. The two Englishmen headed back uptown to their hotel to catch up on sleep.
From the taxi they gazed at the snow turning to slush, and watched pedestrians curse as the stepped into black murky pools of icy water, where a pothole in the road had become a reservoir. Adam felt a little drunk; McAlpine felt the meeting had gone well. They chatted a little, congratulating themselves on getting the deal they wanted, and laughing at Quarterman’s dramatic entry and the effect that they had had on the little coffee shop
At the Iroquois, they went to their separate rooms to catch up on the sleep they missed the night before. Their TVs stayed on but they dozed through the dross. At four it was getting dark, a wet velvety darkness sprinkled with diamonds was wrapping up New York. Adam decided he couldn’t waste another minute in bed, got up, dressed and went for a walk. He headed uptown, along 5th Avenue, before he knew that he was heading for the Whitney Museum. He walked alongside Central Park for a while, then cut across on the sixties to Madison. He got to the museum by four thirty and stayed till it closed at six. There was a big Sol LeWitt show on, and he bought a ticket and allowed himself to be moved by the flow of a typical Sunday New York uptown intellectual crowd. Half listening to their conversations, he wandered through the show, which featured wall drawings, sculptures, photographic series, prints, and drawings on paper. The exhibition included examples of LeWitt’s early austere, modular aesthetic as well as the more sensuous approach he developed after 1980. Adam found it curiously calming to immerse himself in the minimalist, elemental lines, forms and colours of LeWitt’s work. He liked the apparent visual simplicity that belied the conceptual complexity of the work. Something caught his eye on one of the many helpful caption cards dotted around the gallery. A quote from the artist. It read, “Artists are mystics rather than rationalists. They leap to conclusions that logic cannot reach.” Adam took out his Palm Pilot and scrawled that quote into it. He would use it later, so long as he didn’t forget it. He hadn’t ever really followed the work of LeWitt or his contemporaries, Donald Judd, Dan Flavin and Robert Morris, imagining the work to be too bloodless and cerebral, but the exhibition suited his mood well, and he bought the catalogue for Amanda, and a few art-toys for Joe.
That evening Martin McAlpine called an old girlfriend on the Upper East Side. A fiercely bright socialite, she had been an English major at Harvard in the seventies, known for her devastating turn of phrase and her appetite for excess. Dorothy Parker meets Charlie Parker. In the ironic eighties she had made a few records which became turntable staples at Studio 54 and The Mudd Club and earned her the sobriquet “The Queen of Uptown Disco”. Known for being difficult in most ways, but easy in one, she entertained many a visiting Brit at her oh-so-tasteful Park Avenue apartment.
“Hello, stranger.” she cooed into the phone, killing the sound on the TV and picking up her martini and sucking the olive from the stick. “My, it’s been a while. To what do I owe this honour?” She settled onto the Queen Anne sofa, kitten-like, tucking her tiny feet under her soft ass. “I was just about to have an early night”. Her delivery essayed at Home Counties English, but floundered in a sea of vowels. It was an accent waiting to happen.
Within an hour McAlpine was renewing his relationship with Candy, gazing at her panelled bedroom ceiling, estimating the value of the apartment, while she rode him noisily. The divorce settlement had clearly been generous. As he dressed Martin told her “I carry inside me the sexual equivalent of a tapeworm”
Seventy snow-covered blocks south, Adam ordered a third beer from the waitress, tipped her a dollar and listened to a singer-songwriter on the low, dimly-lit stage in the backroom of a bar on E4th St. in the East Village. Her songs were derivative, but suited his melancholy mood. He took slow deliberate sips from the bottle, and drifted in and out of the music. This was the happiest he had been for days. Weeks. A symphony of saxophones, hiphop, and the hissing of airbrakes played as he walked to catch the subway back to The Iroquois afterwards, he felt oddly elated. It had felt good to spend a bit of time alone.
In his room he lit a cigarette, flopped on the bed and watched the BBC World News. Third item up was a piece from London. The Mayoral candidate Dr Fatimah Ali was standing in front of all that remained of a small convenience store. The site had been taped off by the police, and she was being interviewed under the harsh glare of an arc lamp in front of the charred remains of a building. It could have been Beirut or Baghdad. But no, it was Brompton Cross. “A little girl has been killed, a hard-working family’s life has been torn apart, and London should hang its head in shame.” Her voice was grave, sincere, considered. The report closed with a detective saying that police were anxious to interview a short middle-aged white man with his hair tied in a ponytail, wearing a bomber-style jacket, who was seen by a witness and on CCTV driving a white van away from the scene of the murder.
Adam rang down to Martin’s room to tell him what he had just seen. He got no reply, and imagined Martin had taken a pill and gone to sleep early. Adam did the same.
The two met for breakfast in a coffee shop on W44th. McAlpine ordered coffee and a muffins, Adam a full cooked breakfast with eggs over. “Did you go out last night?” Martin asked Adam. “Yes, I went down to a music bar in the East Village. Saw a girl singing. Quite pretty songs, nothing special. Suited my mood. A few beers and an early night. You?”
“Stayed in, did some work, watched TV and took a pill.” Straight-faced.
“Did you see Dr Ali on The News? Turns out that fire wasn’t Southall or Ealing, it was fucking Brompton Cross, near Joseph’s boutique. A little girl burned to death and the good Doctor was there, feeling their pain. Came across rather well, I am sorry to say. She said London should hang its head in shame. Hard to argue.”
“I saw”. End of subject. “What time is the flight?”
“5.30 from JFK. Need to leave town around 2 in case of traffic. I will try calling the City Hall at 9.30 but I don’t hold out a lot of hope for a pic. This is Red-Tape Central. The Mayor might not even be here today. Are you packed?”
“More or less”.
The call to City Hall didn’t get beyond the switchboard before Adam gave it up as a bad idea. It was NEVER going to happen, at least not at an hour’s notice.
They both slept for the duration of the flight. Touching down at Heathrow at 7 am it was still dark, but that didn’t obscure the fact that it was raining hard.
“Welcome home,” Adam sighed, to no-one. Then,
“Maybe next time we touch down you will have the Mayoral limo waiting for us. Let’s hope”
McAlpine just grunted. They shared a cab to Adam’s house in Notting Hill, then McAlpine took it on to his home, rather peeved that the geography of London made him second drop, not first.