Writer, journalist, teacher

Author: The Editor (Page 5 of 13)

Lachlan’s War – Michael Cannon

(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.”

Harry Slocombe’s East End Return

(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’.
‘Very knowledgeable.’
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.
‘Address, Sam?’
‘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.’
‘Trouble, Sam?’
‘Sylvester’s gone crazy. Drugs, big time … ‘
‘Grass?’
‘Big deal!’
‘Cocaine?’
‘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.

Terry

(Published in Multi-Storey 2, January 2001. Broadcast on BBC Radio Manchester, February 2001. Winner of competition)

Video: Terry ponders his life in Salford, now that his parents have passed away. A certain silver screen bombshell provides distant inspiration in the gloom. (Full story below.)

When it rains in Salford I can taste salt in the raindrops, you know when you put your head up. I love sitting by the window in the front room in the dark. It’s started to drizzle and the days are drawing in. I think it’s the chemical factory, that’s where I worked since school, two A levels. Once I moved out of home for a month but something pulled me back, Mother I suppose.

I was always her little Terry, but sitting here I feel myself. Twenty-five-years a technician at the chemical factory isn’t everyone’s idea of an exciting life, but it suited me, all in all. I’m set in my ways, I know that. And since Mother died, two years this September, I’ve slowed up. I’ve done some tidying on the house, a Victorian terrace, otherwise I’ve been rather quiet.

‘Just do that for me will you, Terry love?’ Ooh, there was no end to it.

I don’t go out much, but I’m free inside now, that’s the difference. I get on very well with the neighbours. That’s Bola, she’s Nigerian. They moved in last year. I had a dinner round there recently, very interesting. And she wears the most lovely clothes, multicoloured material that wraps round and round. They brought some colour to the street.

Time I thought of something for tea. On a Friday I often have a takeaway, there’s a lovely Indian on the corner of Maygrove Street, but I’m feeling rather withered, you know. I might just take a mozzarella and ham pizza from the freezer and watch a video. Why not? I’m my own master now.

I love Marilyn Monroe. I’ll watch Some Like it Hot tonight, one of her very best, 1959. And all those cheeky chaps dressing up as women. Marlon and Clint, the budgies, are making such a racket behind me, but I’m very fond of them and they keep fit. We make each other laugh.

I’m going to Knutsford on Sunday, lunch with Veronica, my big sister. It’s good to get out. She was a dental nurse, married the dentist, Derek Palmer. His family are from Lytham, near the golf course. She must have given him laughing gas before he agreed. No children.
It’s a bloody ugly street, there’s no denying that.
‘Come fair bombs and fall on Salford.’

There were never much beauty in our family. Father worked in the power station, stoked boilers or summat like. He looked like a boiler too. Had this very loud voice and shouted ‘Hey up’ down the street to his mates. I don’t think he’d ever heard of art or films or film stars. He followed rugby league.

Every time he came back from a match, it was ‘Do you good, bit of rugby. You’re too soft, lad.’

I was always a thin boy, willowy, and I liked to wear my dark hair a bit long. I thought I looked nice when I smiled into the mirror after a bath, and held the little towel tight around my waist. I’ve hazel eyes and I’d pucker my lips like a film star.

If you sprinkle a little parsley on a pizza, it’s very nice. I’ll have a few glasses of Soave. Why not? I’m not short of a few bob.

I do water colours in my spare time. I might take it further one day. Dad smoked forty a day, drank stout. Over twenty-years-ago the old boiler just blew up, heat attack, Saturday afternoon, after his team Wigan had lost to St. Helens. It was a blessing, all in all.

Greta Garbo is my favourite, that feeling for the camera, those wonderful dresses, that face. Camille, Anna Karenina. I know every scene by heart. ‘You shouldn’t watch them so much,’ Mother used to say, ‘Get out more.’ But if I did she was the first to moan.

Just before Mother died I had trouble at work. Some of the lads started to taunt me. It seemed to be raining all the time and Mother had just been diagnosed. I’d got too friendly with Jimmy, a young boy in accounts. Made a fool of meself. I’d never encouraged that side of me before.
‘Quiet down, Marlon!’

I had this recurring idea that when God made the earth he gave Salford to the devil to play with, it was that ugly. I used to cry myself to sleep at night in the back room and imagine the clogs of the dead shuffling to work. And Mother used to stare at me.

Oh goodness! I thought I saw Mother coming down the street then. Sometimes I’m convinced it’s her, or me Dad – and then I’m so delighted it can’t be. Wicked, I know but she wouldn’t understand.

The doctor gave me uppers, I didn’t want to talk. On the way out, he said: ‘There’s nothing wrong, you know, your erotic feelings, nothing wrong at all.’
‘How dare you!’ I said.

But the doctor’s words kept repeating in my mind. What a nerve! When I got home I put on Anna Karenina to calm me down, and Garbo was wearing a long silky dress. I could almost feel its softness on my skin. Dad’s voice kept coming into my mind and I saw his image in the mirror: ‘You’re too quiet, lad.’ He was such a bully and everything about him was ugly, ugly, ugly.

It’s almost dark now, but I feel so bright inside me these days.

Anyway, after coming back from the doctor’s, I couldn’t settle. I went into the wardrobe where Veronica, my sister, had left a lot of her things. My heart was racing. I tried a dress, then a skirt and a slip. I felt so nice, so right, and I burst into a flood of tears.

I just sat there in front of the mirror, making up with a bit of old eyeliner and lipstick I’d found in the bottom of the wardrobe. Then I went downstairs and watched Anna Karenina all over again.

I’ll pour myself a glass of that Soave and sit here for another ten minutes before I draw the curtains. I’m going to paint the windows before the winter. I do it all myself.

After my first experience of dressing up, I bought a wig and other bits and pieces.

At the end of our street there’s a big billboard with Marilyn Monroe advertising cigarettes, and drinking a glass of champagne in the moonlight. Oh, that’s lovely wine. I’m wearing my black cocktail dress tonight, blond wig, nicely made-up. I could almost be there, in that advertisement, drinking champagne. I’d call myself Jasmine.

When I’m like this, I’m me, only me. I’ve got no family, no Mother looking over me like I’m a bad smell. I’m just Jasmine and I don’t have any past at all.

It’s not a bad life, all in all, looking up at Marilyn. It’s started to drizzle. Marilyn’s lower lip is tilted upwards. I wonder if she can taste the salt in the raindrops too?

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