Soho clairvoyante Madame Sossi reflects on her glittering career, reaching beyond the veil for a variety of London’s glitterati…
Soho clairvoyante Madame Sossi reflects on her glittering career, reaching beyond the veil for a variety of London’s glitterati…
(Published in The Tablet, 5 August 2006)
Dr Lachlan McCready, the eponymous hero of Scottish writer Michael Cannon’s third novel, is the much-loved doctor in a small fishing village, Rassaig, on the west coast of Scotland in 1941. For those who remember the popular television series of the 1960s, Dr Finlay’s Casebook, there is a resemblance between the programme’s benign, elderly Dr Cameron, and Lachlan McCready: both tend their community with humour and wisdom. But this bold, readable novel soon develops in darker and more complex ways than Dr Finlay ever attempted.
After a complicated journey, a Jewish refugee boy, Franz, turns up in the village and Lachlan gives him a home. At the same time three English girls, working on farms to help the war effort, are billeted in the area. The locals gossip salaciously about them.
Cannon is a natural storyteller and he explores Lachlan’s past, including service as a doctor in the First World War, particularly convincingly. Cannon has the ability both to expose, and to sympathise with, human frailty. He writes intensely about sexual and religious passion, and his judgement of religious fundamentalism is acid sharp, embodied here in the figure of “Gavin Bone, Elder of the Free Presbyterian congregation”, and hater of all the village Catholics. Cannon makes a fascinating investigation of the conflict between a Presbyterian and a Catholic view of the world, as it is lived out in a small village.
If there is a flaw in this short novel it is its ambition: there are just too many characters and incidental plots. Lachlan’s War is attempting to be too many different kinds of novel: it is historical, psychological, a novel of ideas, and a novel of place. Occasionally, too, the author’s style runs to melodrama.
That said, it runs along at a cracking pace. The stories within stories keep the reader alert and interested, if sometimes frustrated that the central characters are not getting their share of attention. When the focus shifts briefly to Franz’s background in Prague, we feel alienated, and not close enough to care that much. It is Rassaig that provides the strange, sometimes macabre and primitive atmosphere that gives such a rich texture to the narrative.
The story concludes on an uplifting and moving note of change and acceptance, with Lachlan’s reflections placed rightly at the centre: “Only fools, or those who read too much, fail to take consolation from the texture of the everyday.”
Jeremy Worman’s latest collection, Swimming with Diana Dors and other stories, was published by Cinnamon Press in June 2014. Barbara Hardy wrote: ‘Worman’s new collection reminds us what Henry James meant when he said the writer must be someone on whom nothing is lost, and it shows what the short story can do – memorialise place and time, concentrate feeling, relationship, sensation and history, in glimpses and vivid moments.’ Fragmented, my collection of short stories about London was published in 2011 by Cinnamon Press (partly funded by an Arts Council grant). Fragmented charts a personal journey from 1970s squatter to life in Hackney now. Fragmented is widely available. It is also on Kindle and may be downloaded from Amazon.
Swimming with Diana Dors:
Listen to Jeremy reading podcast versions of some of the stories:
(Published in the anthology London Rivers, Paekakariki Press, 2011)
Nowhere, Tilbury, the place,
the town square flimsy like a film set,
not a place of coming from
but arriving at, to go beyond.
Today a girl on horseback
rode in, then trotted out
into a kind of shrubland
with old shire horses, rusty
Cortina, dead plough.
here, where the East End ends
and the flat marshland
sinks to the wide Thames edge,
silver slivers of a ship’s funnels
leave England’s grubby bend
In his first collection of short fiction, Fragmented, Jeremy Worman traced a narrative from hippy squatter in the seventies to established husband, father and lecturer reflecting on life in inner city London in the present. In Swimming with Diana Dors he digs deeper, bringing to life memorable characters who remain with the reader. Variously personal, elegiac, political, and humorous, the stories range over themes of outsiders, loss, death, ghosts, change and the importance of place, with many stories set in London.
Several stories have been previously published in anthologies and literary magazines, including Signals-2 and Signals-3 (London Magazine Editions), The London Magazine, Ambit, The Frogmore Papers, Pen Pusher and The Penniless Press. ‘Terry’ was broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester.
(First published in The London Magazine, May 2003)
My first printed story, ‘Simon Carver Looks at Life’, a dark tale about a prep school boy and cricket, appeared in the October / November 1996 issue of The London Magazine. This should have been a happy start to my belated writing career except that I had lied to Alan Ross about myself. It was a fertile lie, which forced me to reappraise myself radically, during a time of mental exhaustion.
Alan Ross, who throughout his life also suffered from crippling bouts of depression, had phoned me, sometime in August 1996, to get biographical details. He was renowned for being curt on the phone, and I found him intimidating and slightly grand in his manner. Initially I was straightforward with him, although he asked a number of probing questions – he had been in Naval Intelligence. Then he asked me which school I had been to, and I tried to sidestep the question by saying that I had been to Haileybury prep school, and briefly to public school. Then I talked quickly about my time at a tutorial college in Windsor, the Polytechnic of North London, Birkbeck College and Cambridge University.
‘Yes, but which school did you go to?’ ‘Haileybury,’ I blurted out, ‘but I was only there for a year or so.’ ‘Which house were you in.’ ‘Edmonstone.’ The interrogation over, he said my story would appear soon, and we said a clipped goodbye.
In fact I had run away three times in my first term at Haileybury in 1968 and never went back. I returned instead to my alcoholic parents in Egham, Surrey, my mother vivacious and violent, my father benign and in the early stages of dementia.
After my first two weeks at Haileybury, I had no intention of staying. I don’t believe it was anything to do with the school. The previous school holiday had determined my fate. My father was failing in mind and body, my mother was often drunk and also involved in a messy relationship with my father’s chauffeur. Her mood swings, from most loving mother to Lady Dracula, were terrifying. But I was sure that if I were at home I could help my mother and make everything better.
Perhaps my initial half-truth to Alan Ross was understandable, as I did not wish to dig up these things. I just hoped that he wouldn’t use the Haileybury detail in the contributors’ notes, but he did – perhaps because, ironically, he was himself an Old Haileyburian. After this I met him briefly on two occasions at his funny little hut of an office in Thurloe Place SW7, but I never mentioned my lie. I brooded on it, and in the spring of 1998 I wrote him a letter revealing the truth. He probably knew anyway as he had many connections with the Old Boy network.
But that lie showed to me the need I had to cling to some fictionalized idea of myself, and how I still erased the painful, or what I interpreted as most shameful, parts of my life.
My father died in 1970. My mother went on a world cruise and I stayed in Egham. Mrs Dent came in to cook my meals and to keep the house clean. I had my first intense sexual relationship, with the gorgeous Virginia, which cheered me up no end.
From this point on my life was a series of vignettes, lacking connection and purpose: dropping out in Wales; a philosophy degree at the Polytechnic of North London; squatting; involvement with performance-art; chauffeuring an eccentric barrister in his Rolls-Royce; teaching adult education in the East End; getting a First in English from Birkbeck College. In 1987 I found myself doing research in Cambridge, and I soon began to supervise students at Peterhouse. Some years later, the Cambridge examiners ‘referred’ my PhD thesis (meaning that I had more work to do on it) – and I accepted an M.Litt degree.
I had already begun to teach American undergraduates in various colleges in London and in 1994 I was in America on a promotional tour with the American director of one of these colleges. We were driving from Chicago to Galesburg on a long, bleak Midwest road, when I suddenly decided I could not go on. I took the train back to Chicago, then a plane to England and six months of free psychotherapy, courtesy of Tonic, the charity supported by Mike Oldfield.
After this I began to write seriously. At first the autobiographical element was dominant but began to play a smaller part. I believe it was Robert McCrum who said recently in The Observer that writing a novel is perhaps the most probing form of psychoanalysis there is.
I am now far happier and living in Hackney with my wife, Nicola, head teacher of an infant school, and our two-year-old daughter, Myfanwy. I continue to teach English literature to American undergraduates at Birkbeck. I am writing another novel. My short stories, poems and reviews have been published widely.
In After Pusan (1995), the third book of Alan Ross’s autobiography, he wrote with directness about his ‘present self, emerging shakily from the wreckage of breakdown and depression, cut wrists and crisis’. My sufferings have not been on this scale. I feel that the surface of life is never quite stable.
My lie to Alan Ross was a turning point. He printed two more of my stories. Over the years he also sent me a number of witty postcards about my stories and reviews or other things. He was a man of great sensitivity and dry humour.
William Boyd, whose first short story was published by Ross, wrote many years later in the Evening Standard, that The London Magazine is ‘a fantastic magazine whose place in the history of twentieth-century literary life grows ever more secure and significant’. At the time of his death Alan Ross was in a state of severe depression.
The Tsars of Holy Russia!
How well you looked four years before your death
The girls smiling, on the boy’s head a sailor’s hat.
Standing in furs, snow hard upon the ground
And behind, a black wood tipped with ice.
Your open smiles defied the world
The private dreams, a family joke
While they waited in the woods.
How blind, to your names
dangling on Rasputin’s silver cross.
Serene you stand, arrogant no doubt, and yet
The elder sister’s hand upon Alexie’s head,
The mother’s touch upon the father’s arm.
And from the woods their burning eyes on you.
Against the wall the family stood.
They fired so many bullets in your flesh
They left the shape of icons on the floor.
Stalin placed his spies in every private heart,
He made a nation of himself.
You waited as a family under earth
For over eighty years picked pure.
The icy winters gathered over you.
To St. Petersberg at last your poor and equal bones:
Do the bells across the steppes ring out
To call you home again?
(Published in The Salisbury Review, Spring 2004)
The Old Wives’ Tale (1908) is one of the most underrated novels in English literature, about the kind of people who were once the backbone of the Conservative Party, hard-working shopkeepers and traders. The world of the central characters is underpinned by a code of non-conformist Christian values. Old Mr Baines hated ‘the modern craze for unscrupulous self advertisement’, and in our age obsessed with celebrity it is refreshing to read about ordinary people, real heroes in their struggles and celebrations of life.
The Old Wives’ Tale tells the vivid but down-to-earth stories of two sisters, Constance and Sophia, whose lives take radically different directions. Their father was a well-respected draper in ‘Bursley’, at the heart of the Potteries. It is a deeply-woven historical novel, full of atmosphelic details, and begins in the 1860s and ends in the early year’s of the twentieth century. The novel gives a picture of the type of moral, regional community that should surely be the core constituency with which Conservatives must reconnect, or recreate, if they are to become again a convincing political force.
One must first bring the novel out of the shadow of the patronising criticism that has always hung over it. Henry James’s long essay in the Times Literary Supplement of March 1914, ‘The Younger Generation’, elegantly undermined Bennett’s writing style. James complained that The Old Wives’ Tale was ‘vividly covered by an exhibition of innumerable small facts’, which ‘exhausts our reaction’. He could detect no deeper artistic form to the novel than its ‘solidity’. Virginia Woolf, in an article in The Criterion of July 1924, ‘Character in Fiction’, attacked the novelistic ‘conventions’ of ‘Mr Bennett, Mr Wells and Mr Galsworthy’: ‘They have laid an enormous stress upon the fabric of things. They have given us a house in the hope that we may be able to deduce the human beings who live there.’
Both these writers were condemning Bennett from the rarefied heights of Modernist criticism. Their key ideological demands were that the true literary work must both eschew authorial commentary and show the world from an inner perspective of character. They condemned Bennett on both points. Their judgement was also that of an upper-class elite against the lower-middle-class Bennett whom they did not consider to be ‘one of us’. They thought of Bennett as a hack rather than an artist. Nothing could be further from the truth. In The Old Wives’ Tale Bennett does show the world from the inner perspective of character. But he also has a sociological range, and a precision of analysis about his culture, beyond the scope of Hemy James or Virginia Woolf.
The importance of belonging to a particular place, as a way of conferring special affirmation to our sense of personal identity, is a deeply conservative value. The opening chapter of The Old Wives’ Tale expresses this theme. Near Bursley ‘rose the liver Trent, the calm and characteristic stream of Middle England’. But the reader’s focus is drawn to a ‘district’ and then to the ‘square’ where the central characters live. There is great lyricism in the first chapter, showing the relationship between the small, constrained world of the characters and the wider, potent images of an historical idea of England that is always present at the edges of the narrative. The importance given in the novel to the geographical roots of characters is intensified because Arnold Bennett was himself brought up in the Potteries.
D.H. Lawrence seems clearly to have developed this theme, of characters set in a provincial setting and their relationship to a broader concept of England, in the first chapter of The Rainbow (1915). The central difference between the two writers is that Bennett does not allow his characters the spiritual or sexual release that Lawrence explores in The Rainbow. Bennett’s characters are internally shaped by the values of the Wesleyan chapel and the harshness of puritan morality: ‘Sophia had sinned, it was therefore inevitable that she should suffer.’
Sophia elopes to France in 1866 with a salesman who has pretensions to be a gentleman. He then abandons her. Sophia lives through the siege of Paris in 1870, successfully running a pension. Bennett, who knew Paris well, writes dramatically about Sophia’s time in France, and subtly draws out the different values between French people and those of a working English woman. The novel implicitly demonstrates a faith in status, order, and fair play in business, that are distinctly conservative. At the age of fifty Sophia returns to Bursley.
Her sister had married Samuel Povey and they run the draper’s shop. The details of their small lives, as they grow older, are revealed so acutely that we can almost taste and touch the fabric of their world, as well as understanding their inner motivations and disquiets. Bennett’s ability to explore the interpenetrations between public and private worlds demonstrates an artistry like that of a more regional Tolstoy. Rarely have the internal dynamics of a lower-middIe-class world been better revealed than in The Old Wives’ Tale. Larger historical events, for example the balloonists escaping the siege of Paris, the ‘Free Library’ opened by Gladstone, electric trams in Bursley, are drawn subtly into the story, always keeping the characters at the centre of the stage, as they struggle with the events of history that work through them.
The Old Wives’ Tale is obsessed with the negative implications of change. The author successfully breaks the rules of Modernist fiction by inserting authorial interjections, for example, ‘How can you be so blind to our fleeting existence?’ It is as if Bennett feels an awful sense of urgency about what is coming to the world of his characters. The author’s occasional use of a prophetic voice intensifies rather than diminishes the themes of the novel, and illustrates his insistent tirade against progress.
This fear of progress is linked to a horror of death. His description of a dead body chills the reader with its physical accuracy. Time and death, the sense of an inevitable erosion to individuals and communities, haunt the book, and the reader feels a deep melancholy at the death of the central characters.
In a more political sense, The Old Wives’ Tale asks the difficult question of how a conservative vision of a small community can hold on to a sense of continuity in a world of increasing national commercialism that threatens regional solidarity. At the end, the sisters live together. Bennett’s concrete, pictorial imagery strikingly expresses the contrast between the sisters’ memories of stability in their youth and the juggernaut of inevitable change that is destabilising their community.
The Old Wives’ Tale offers a kind of narrative meditation on conservative beliefs. For the underlying values of the novel – thrift, hard work, civic pride, the importance of duty – were those at the roots of Thatcherism. Margaret Thatcher’s father, Councillor Roberts, would have grown up in a regional urban community similar to that depicted in The Old Wives’ Tale. But in an increasingly uprooted world of vapid E.E.C. values and global capitalism, how can such communities survive, or be restored? And what now, in a post-Thatcher world, is the relationship between Conservatism and the bleak Noncomformist values of the novel? However, The Old Wives’ Tale should be read first as a brilliant and moving story about a particular vision of Englishness.
(Published in Signals 2 – a London Magazine Anthology of Short Stories, 1999)
Harry Slocombe pulled back the duvet, smiled at the little wooden Buddha on the windowsill, and burped. It was 7a.m. on a grey lead coffin Hackney morning in January. But Harry had a contract with his analyst that he was going to get up in the mornings.
‘What fucking for?’ he thought. The heating hadn’t come on. The slate grey canal bubbled past, carrying its polluted secrets. He lit a Benson and Hedges and waited for the ugly plastic kettle with flowers on the side to boil. ‘Canal Side with a View’ the estate agent had said. He stood on the balcony in his dressing-gown and sucked in the diesel-rich mist which settled like sweat on his bald head.
A dead puppy, a retriever looking mongrel, its belly bloated and tight like a drum skin, in stomach-up-tickle-me position, was caught on the broken branch of a fallen willow tree. It was the second this week. Always a rush after Christmas.
He switched on the answerphone. ‘Mistah Sylvester is veree pleased you haave taken the caisse of his misssing dauughtah. He will contaact you sooon.’ The line went dead. ‘Sounds more like a fucking threat!’ He flicked his cigarette into the canal. But beggars couldn’t be choosers.
‘Positive thoughts in the morning, Harry, why is that so difficult for you?’ Roz Aust, his analyst, had asked him that at their last session. He looked wistfully at the reunion invitation on the windowsill to ‘Detective Chief Inspector Slocombe, Flying Squad.’ He’d cried when it arrived last week, it had been two years since he resigned from the squad . . .
But it was no good. Across the marshes to Walthamstow the sky was death grey. And so low he was sure it would soon take a last gasp and sink into the marshes to shroud the bronze age inhabitants who were its first human spectres. To the south east a church spire was mocked between two high rise blocks. ‘There’s nothing bleeding positive here, Roz, is there love, it’s the end, darling, this is the beginning of the bloody end.’
He sat at the kitchen table, absorbed his second fag, third mug of tea and laid out the information he had on Jasmine Sylvester, seventeen year old daughter of Mr Nicki Sylvester, Jamaican Import-Export specialist, six foot four, fourteen and a half stone, no fat, crocodile shoes, gold chains as thick as his fIngers, a driver called Pod …
Yes, pretty girl, he thought as he shaved, the instincts of the detective rising through his marsh gas of despair. Of course, the case was far too sensitive for the police to handle. Mr Sylvester loved his daughter so much he just wanted her back …
He imagined the marshes outside, the fIrst settlement, village, town, city:
Harry wanted to bring order to the world of Mr Sylvester, keep the wolves of chaos at bay. ‘Karma, Harry, everyone needs good karma.’ Beth, the yoga teacher at Hackney Institute, talked to him like that. He went for his arthritis.
He slapped on Eau Sauvage (threw away the Brut last week) and finished dressing. He’d never worn a black leather blouson before but at fifty five he was excited about the change. He leered at the eyes that analysed him in the mirror. The skin was smooth for a smoker and ex-alcoholic; the large, round moon face had lost weight. He still carried thirteen and a half stone but was training again at the gym. A powerful body, like a second row forward but taller (five foot eleven) and a belly too much like a sumu wrestler. But the head was made by the generous lips that reshaped his face when he laughed or frowned, and the hooded, hot coal eyes that surprised you with their intensity and hardness.
He hunted for his car keys. Roz Aust had cropped hair, but he’d got over that. It was part of the deal, no threats to his pension, no inquiry, if he agreed to sort out his alcoholism. But sorting that out brought on other problems so he kept her after the money ran out from the police charity which had given him twelve months therapy free.
The old off-white Volvo, a 1967 saloon, started first time and he tapped the steenng-wheel affectionately. His ex-wife, Brenda, always hated ‘that common old banger’. She’d finally kicked him out two years ago. He’d drifted for elghteen months, bought this little place last July.
The girl, Jasmine Sylvester, Jasmine Sylvester, he rolled her on his tongue, swallowed her name and let it course through his bloodstream. He would find the girl. He was on a search again, a hunt, a game, a race with gold at the end of the journey. It was his first real case since he set up the agency six months ago. The excitement carried to his genitals. He had an image of Martha the Bondage Maid handcuffing him to the bed. Control or be controlled, the dark angel that shadowed his life…
‘Sam James, Hackney Auto Sports, Furlong Lane, E9.’ His first contact, Sam’s daughter, Hope, was the best fnend of Jasmine Sylvester.
‘Sam James?’ Harry spoke loudly above the sound of the music,
‘I’m Harry Slocombe, Private Investigator, I’m working for Mr Sylvester.’
Sam turned down the cassette inside the car.
‘Like classical music, Mr James?’
‘Wagner’s my man, Songs from Goethe’s Faust, one of his early bum fluff works’.
You think niggers only like jungle music?’
‘Ha, ha, not at all, Mr James, I’m a jazz man myself.’
The tall, supple Sam James put his head deeper into the end compartment of a red MGB.
‘Mr Sylvester said you’d help me, his daughter’s gone missing.’ ‘Mr Sylvester?’ He picked up a plug spanner.
In the corner of the workshop a fierce shaved-head black guy dropped a heavy wrench. Harry tensed.
Sam hit his head against the bonnet and gestured for Harry to follow. He led the way up a metal staircase to a large, bare storage room or office.
‘I don’t see my daughter, we quarrel, she gone off … ‘ Sam wandered around.
‘Don’t know, we quarrel .. .’
‘Wonder if Mr Sylvester thinks his daughter’s got something valuable his, something he wants back .. .?’
‘You talkin’ riddles.’
Harry clicked into gear like an old boxer who never forgets his stance or his footwork. ‘Jasmine Sylvester, had a boyfriend, Winston, big handsome, clever, worked for Mr Sylvester, courier, being trained for, er, management … ‘ He gave Sam his cold owl look, known to unsettle the toughest gangsters.
‘Girls have boyfriends, man, make the world go round.’
‘And Jasmine and her boyfriend, Winston, they went off together?, It happens all the time, man.’
Harry took off his cold owl look, sighed, went over to the window, listened to Sam breathing heavily, rubbing his hands together. Harry’s trainers squeaked across the workshop floor towards the bottom of the stairs.
Harry gazed out at Homerton High Street through the grimey window, followed the endless line of roofs to the marshes. His mother’s aunts lived in Burma Road, his grandad was born in Bethnal Green, Harry had been a young copper in Bow. Now he was back, in the chaos, in the movement, the low life inevitability of misery, dealing with people who had nothing to do with his roots. He wanted to smash the whole bloody lot, Brenda and her golf professional boyfriend, blow up the fancy hall Chingford, say sorry to his daughter …
Harry shook his head and turned: ‘Mr Sylvester’s a powerful man, . doesn’t get his possessions back … ‘
‘Don’t twist me up, man.’
‘You want Mr Sylvester to find your daughter himself, use his men?’
‘So why Mr Sylvester not here now then, man, if he so keen.’
‘Keeping a professional distance, Sam, may I call you Sam?’
Harry tiptoed to the door. Sam picked up a pen and scribbled down his daughter’s address, ‘I think she know where Jasmine is, I don’t want no trouble for Hope.’
‘Sylvester’s gone crazy. Drugs, big time … ‘
‘Heroin, takin’ over London, if he trouble Hope … ‘
Harry pulled back the office door. ‘Like listening to other people’s conversations, son?’ The vicious looking man who had dropped the wrench stood motionless.
‘Me worry ’bout Sam, having an ex-old bill sniffling round like a dog on heat … ‘
‘Who told you that, son?’
‘Me got ears everywhere, remember dat, Sam!’ Got a car to work on, sonny?’
‘Rasclat!’ He slammed the door.
‘If I need you, Sam . . . drink, meal together, the Dutch Pot, best Caribbean food in London?’
‘Thought you a pie-and-mash man.’ Sam held his head in his hands. ‘Here’s my number, keep it from Voodoo Face.’
Harry sat in the Volvo, well satisfied. This is Sam’s London too, he thought, which his mind believed if not his heart. He read Hope’s address, 29 Vallance Road, Bethnal Green, and sped off. ‘Getting bigger all the time, if I get the H back to Sylvester, big money, I’ll call him, let him know I know … ‘
The adrenalin swam round his body like a narcotic, pumped his genitals like a dose of oysters. Martha the Bondage Maid, seen her for twenty years, wife never knew until the end, holding his body, his body, his self, all he was in one place, ordered, controlled. ‘Talk to the images, talk to them, perhaps enter a dialogue?’ . . . Roz Aust was keen on dialogues. But he wanted change, freedom, love …
He parked at the end of Vallance Road and rubbed the tears from his eyes. ‘Where the bloody Krays were born!’, he sniffed the curry in the air and slammed the car door.
Sam must have phoned his daughter and she let Harry in quickly. Hope was a tall, pretty girl, like a swimmer, hair in ringlocks. Like Sam she knew nothing.
‘Turn the lights off, look outside,’ he said. On the corner of the street, two black heavies slunk by a lamppost. ‘Don’t worry, love, they’re only checking I’m doing my job, they won’t get involved, after all Mr Sylvester had his reputation to consider.’
‘I’m frightened, Mr Slocombe, Jasmine Sylvester’s my best friend, we’re like sisters, such a stupid girl, so stupid, going off with Winston like that, stealing Mr Sylvester’s … ‘ Her body shook with tears and Harry handed her his damp handkerchief.
‘They won’t trouble you love, I’ll sort it, thanks for the address.’ Harry drove back slowly up Bethnal Green Road. The drizzle polished the pavements, reflecting the tail lights and the displays of drinks, perfumes and magazines in the gaudy shop windows. The things we do for money! Harry laughed suddenly and the image of the little wooden Buddha came into his mind.
Winston wanted out from Sylvester, so he thought he’d steal a kilo of heroin, and make a new life for him and Jasmine ‘back home’, in Jamaica. ‘Back home’, they were both born in the bleeding Homerton Hospital!’ He didn’t try to lose the old, red Xj6 that was following him, not yet, no need to make anyone suspicious.
Inside the maisonette, he yawned, didn’t turn on the lights, checked the towpath. By the Anchor the two heavies looked back and forth at the canal, glancing up regularly at his flat. They flicked their cans of Special Brew into the canal.
It was only 4 o’clock but Harry was dog-tired. He took a cold shower and lay on his bed, feeling as raw and bare as the marshes outside. He phoned Sylvester, insisted on talking to Sylvester. ‘No games, Mr Sylvester, two grand straight up, I’ll get it back to you, and leave the kids alone, I’ve still got contacts in the squad … ‘ ‘Of course, Mr Slocombe, no trouble, always trust an ex-Metropolitan bobby.’
He made thick coffee and straightened his mind. He would clear it up, no time for morality, too poor, got nothing. A commotion outside. Only kids with white plastic bags. Glue sniffers. Girl and two boys, white as death, going onto the marshes for their evening fun. It would never end, the muddle, the mess . . . only Martha understood, as her leather thighs straddled his tightly held body …
He woke cold from a fitful sleep. He’d dreamed of himself with his head in a plastic bag of glue, heading for the marshes. ‘Well, how different is my fucking life?’
On a whim he called George Ormrod, now a detective sergeant with the squad. Harry had trained him up. They used to call him Sissy Hot Pants, he never believed in ‘perks’, even rumoured he was a Methodist. But he gave Harry a load on Sylvester and it was all bad, and there wasn’t anything Sylvester wouldn’t do, if Harry could give them anything on him … Harry replaced the receiver and sighed deeply. What could he do, he had to make a living too, he would never change the world, and when it was over, when he’d collected his fat wedge for returning the heroin he could phone Martha, better value than his dyke therapist …
Harry shaved and dressed. There was a skylight in the ceiling which gave access to a fire escape on the other side of the buildings. He put on his mac, and climbed nimbly up the stepladders. Bellying over the V roof was more difficult with the arthritis in his knee but he kept low and out of sight of the thugs on the towpath.
He slipped round Digby Road and into the Volvo, already facing the right way. ‘Start, my darling, start.’ He charged off, into second at five thousand revs before the heavies had even shifted from their Special Brew malaise. ‘Too late, you bastards, hope Sylvester cuts off your balls, useless gits.’
He took the back roads to Commercial Road then followed it east until he turned onto the Isle of Dogs. Jasmine Sylvester and Winston were living in a posh flat on Narrow Street. He wanted to clear it up quick.
He ran to the lifts, smelt the river behind the facade of flats, sixth floor, number 129, knocked, again, again: ‘Hope James told me I would find you here, I’m Harry Slocombe, love, I’m here to sort things out … ‘ Winston opened the door, large, smiling, as if welcoming a star guest to the party. He led the way into the living-room.
‘I hate Sylvester,’ Winston shouted, ‘Praise the Lord, I hate him, evil man, son of Satan.’
Harry stood back, open mouthed.
‘Be happy, Mr Slocombe, happy days!’ jasmine shook his arm, ‘we’re born again, praise the lord. Sylvester’s not my real dad, he just live with me mum, one of his women – and he take a fancy to me too, many times – the Lord will punish him, Praise the Lord.’
‘Hallelujah, Hallelujah!’ Winston clapped his hands.
Harry, who had seen most things, stood silent, blinking, repeating their conversation over and over in his head. ‘I’m very happy for you both, naturally, but there is one small problem.’
‘The heroin, Mr Slocombe, the devil’s friend ‘ Winston’s smile widened.
‘Mr Sylvester wants his property back, he ‘
‘Never!’ Winston shot up a black panther clenched fist which Harry thought rather incongruous.
‘You destroyed it, you born again, dead again little twit … ‘
‘We hide it,’ he said.
Harry sat down while Jasmine and Winston looked out at the river, their arms round each other. Harry stared angrily at their backs, he’d never known anything so stupid – and the bloody throbbing began again in his balls, his need for Martha, for his body to be tied, controlled, known, certain – would he never change?
‘All right kids, how far you really prepared to go, will you testify against Sylvester?’
‘Testify, testify!,’ they cheered. ‘Oh my God.’
They sat down on either side of Slocombe. Jasmine held his hand, so tenderly, ‘We not mad, Mr Slocombe, we are afraid to testify, he will try to kill us, but Winston’s brother die from heroin last month, we going to do it, all the way.’ Her eyes, so clear and truthful, gazed into his. For a moment he lost all sense, felt free, heard the handcuffs unlock …
Winston stood, ‘We’re not crazy, we’ll do it, we are afraid, but the Lord will protect us.’
It’s only money, Harry sighed, he saw the two thousand pounds burning in front of his eyes. ‘All right kids, all right, if you really want to, I’ve got a contact in the Flying Squad, they’d love to hear from you two, can I use your phone?’
‘Next door, Mr Slocombe,’ Jasmine pointed.
‘In the meantime, put that chest across the door, and the wardrobe against the window … do it, do it, now!’
‘George, Harry Slocombe here, look I’ve found Sylvester’s heroin, and I the two kids will testify against him.’
‘No, George, I’ve not been drinking, they had a conversion experience.’
‘No, George, they’ve not changed to Mercury, they’re born again, explain later, get down here, now, quick.’
‘He’s on his way, kids, make us a cup of tea will you love?’
George Ormrod arrived with three other detectives, began to take statements, delighted by the turn of events.
‘George, I’ll be back in a minute, there’s something I’ve got to do.’
He opened the boot of his car in East India Dock Road, took out a package and walked across some gangplanks to the river. He tied string round the little cardboard box, and gave his favourite handcuffs a final kiss. He crouched into a military second world war grenade throwing position and flung the package as far as he could into the middle of the ancient river. ‘Won’t be needing them any more.’ Half a moon flicked highlights of silver onto the ripple tops of the little waves.
He wouldn’t be seeing Martha tonight. It was over. When Jasmine looked into his eyes he knew even he could change. ‘What’s money, Harry?’ He saw his two thousand pounds on a bonfire and laughed as it burnt to dust.
He was ugly, he hated his body. But he wanted someone to look into his eyes and, and to love him … That’s what he had always wanted. The money, the handcuffs, he’d let them go together. He sat on the mud of the river bank and cried uncontrollably. Bondage was the only way he could be loved, but no more. It had failed him.
He thought of his handcuffs travelling beneath the river towards Millwall and oblivion. The river was always moving: Bronze Age settlers, Elizabethan explorers, pirates, convicts, the Queen Mary, the end of the docks, carrying its cargo, Russian Jewish immigrants, Bangladeshis, Somalis, Jasmine and Winston, him, all citizens of London, all changing.
Harry walked back to the flat. He felt old and very alone, unchained and naked in the vast city. But from somewhere out of the deeps of London he hoped love may one day find him.
(Published in Pen Pusher, Summer 2008 – You can also watch a short film version, here)
I was doing a little shopping in Berwick Street market. Bobby, who sells exotic fruits, called out, ‘Madame Sossi, where’s that blonde bombshell you promised me last week?’ ‘Be patient,’ I said, ‘wait for Jupiter to enter Capricorn next week, that’ll do the trick.’
Scallops for my supper tonight. Of course, I’m long retired, though I still do a few séances for favoured clients, but it’s only pocket money. I’m well provided for. But Soho isn’t what it was.
Last week, who should I see in the mirror but Dylan, Dylan Thomas. He’s always sober these days, radiant: ‘Hello, my petalled rosebud’ (what a voice); ‘How is my angel of the eternal valleys?’
Poor Dylan, he was up here in January 1953. I was at my peak then, ‘Mademoiselle Sossi Predicts’ had just begun in the Daily Sketch, lovely figure, auburn hair, long Diana Dors dresses, a bust that hypnotized. I said to Dylan, we’d all been out to dinner at the Eiffel Tower, ‘Don’t go to America, Dylan, don’t go!’ He roared, ‘Will it be my ruin, you mermaid of the deeps?’ His hands lurched round me, ‘Give me the strength, you lissom temptress. You are my ruin, you, you – come to me!’
I never…with Dylan. You wouldn’t have known where he’d been. He had a place in Redcliffe Street then, Earls Court, but he stayed with anyone who would accommodate him, and many did. Poor Dylan. I couldn’t sleep while he was in America. My calling is not an easy one.
I was born in Ladbroke Grove in 1925, if you can believe it, and “ruined” in 1941 on a summer’s day in a boat on the Thames at Cookham. It was the making of me. My mother, Betty Turpin, was red with rage. She knew the moment I walked in: ‘You bloody trollop, who you been with?’ I licked my lips.
On the boat with Luigi I saw an aura round his head like flowing silk scarves. I had been touched by the gift. Luigi encouraged my calling. He had a revue bar in Brewer Street and gave me a job as a receptionist, as well as finding me a flat at the top of a house near Golden Square.
The mirror is going misty, always a sign I’ll be visited later.
I moved in to Golden Square on 17 April 1942. There was an old medium and astrologer living in Lexington Street, Miss Veronica Hanson, she’d been a friend of Annie Besant (I’ll put those scallops in the frying-pan, with a little oil, lemon, parsley). I studied with ‘Miss Veronica’ for two years. One day she said, ‘You need a name, darling – “Rosie Turpin” lacks refinement perhaps? – and El-o-Cu-Tion lessons. Does bloody wonders for business.’
Luigi arranged for Sybil Merchant to give me voice lessons. I love the smell of scallops cooking, and the colour, like eating jewels of the sea. Luigi was so kind and I called myself ‘Mademoiselle Sossi’ (It was the Daily Sketch that introduced the ‘Madame’). He was Luigi Rossi but his wife would have been unhappy if I’d called myself ‘Rossi’. One of my early clients, a Polish cavalry officer, used to say to me, ‘My special angel, my darling, you’re so saucy, saucy,’ which sounded like ‘sossi’. So Sossi it was.
As my voice became more refined it was marvellous not sounding like mother. But she found out where I was living. One evening she waited until Luigi arrived, then jumped on him, kicking and screaming wildly. It was very bad for business.
Darling Luigi had troubles with the taxman and a gang of Maltese thugs – he fled home to Sicily with his wife and children. That was in January 1944. I never heard from him again. There have been no sightings from the other side.
These scallops are gorgeous, and with a little green salad, rye bread. Soho is not what it was though – lots of young men with firm bottoms and girls with badly applied make-up. As my old friend Don Lawson used to say, ‘They’re just designer bohos, sweetie.’ I won’t bother with the curlers tonight.
One night, towards the end of the war, December 1944, mother stood drunk outside my flat for three hours. I pretended I wasn’t in. All associations between us were over. She was shouting some quite horrible things about poor Luigi, and what a slut I was. I’d had enough. The next morning an old acquaintance gave me an introduction to a disciple of Aleister Crowley.
So, in January 1945, I travelled into deepest Surrey to meet one of Mr Crowley’s protégés. I handed him a large fee and a brooch of mother’s that she’d given me years ago. We went into the woods and in a most potent ceremony a curse was placed on mother. A tension began to leave me at once.
On 21 February 1945 a handsome policeman came to my flat and told me that mother had dropped dead waiting for the 43 bus (they found my address in her handbag). I could have kissed him.
It’s lovely lying in bed, watching telly. I’m never lonely. Jeffrey Bernard still visits me, ‘Hello, lover, time for a vodka?’ – and could he drink vodka! I hope you’re happy on the astral plane, Jeffrey. He gave me a tip last week, ‘Running Wild’, in the 2.30 at Catterick – came in last. Some things never change.
I think I’ll go to sleep in a minute. General de Gaulle loved Soho, virtually set up his headquarters at the French Pub – a most attractive man considering he was so ugly. I did his astrological chart – but I mustn’t go into this, I’m probably still bound by the Official Secrets Act. I love these soft pillows. Never economize on pillows.
And duck feather duvets, what an invention! I never married, not that I was short of offers. It’s funny being so popular at my age…