The red-faced man sitting across the other side of the table was telling me his life story, while I scribbled my autograph down in the flyleaf. He couldn’t have been more than a few years old then myself, but shabbier, and not good in the health stakes, judging by his deep cough.
‘You should write a book about it,’ I said casually.
He gazed at me as if offended. I realised, then, that my last words have being tinged with the same tired sarcasm that others had once used against me.
‘I’m sorry, mate,’ I said, trying to rescue the situation. ‘You know, what I meant was…well, that everyone’s got a story to tell. You should put it down, even if it doesn’t get published.’ But I was still digging. ‘You know, like, for family and future generations?’
His face hung down. Sullenly, he took my book and departed.
I signed with relief. I knew that look - it had been the same that Justin Taylor had given me when he had railed against others in his grasp for fame. Perhaps this bloke was jealous at my imagined kudos. He could see himself in my position, surrounded by plaudits. Everyone plays that game, more than once, and it’s a bag that can easily burst, spilling out an acid sea of resentment.
Never – ever - complain, you lucky bugger. Not about this. That could have been me walking out that door. Yeah – you lucky bugger.
Justin Taylor: I thought back; that was the last time I saw the police. The body had been ID-ed, and his estranged brother had come to collect him. It was sad, for him especially, and in a strange way for Justin. How a life only dreamt can go awry.
He didn’t kill Sammy, though. But we excuse so much – so much that we call madness. Geraldine Malkin’s madness was passed off as business, and as Liz once said to me: ‘she was great businesswoman - but a lousy human being’. And so it ends there. Bound in vows of silence.
But could I excuse what I did in those studios in Stepney as madness?
Probably not. And, after all, I did pull the trigger on Geraldine, even though the gun was empty. Shit – empty! Was it my madness that wanted an end to it all? After killing her, I had intended to turn the gun on myself – the only way to make peace and find some closure. Yeah, some closure that would have been.
But what now? I could only block out so much in idle musing; and the odd distractions still sent me back to that night over twenty years ago. But, hey, people live with worse shit…and without a conscience.
My mobile rang. I checked my watch. Ten more minutes and I’d be done…
‘Oh, it’s gorgeous here, Jack, boiling, but who cares,’ said a chirpy Nigel, calling from Gran Canaria. ‘By the way, how’s the weather in Manchester?
‘Chucking it down.’
‘Liz with you?’
‘Outside, having a cig. Archie keeping you entertained then?’
‘Oh yes. Can’t wait ‘til you get in tomorrow. He’s got a few bones to pick over with you, regarding your masterpiece.’
‘Made me out to be a right stick in the mud,’ blustered Archie in the background. ‘And what’s this about calling my character Algernon? I hate the name Algernon.’
‘Hear that, Jack?’
‘I heard it. Tell Archie: I was trying to preserve his honour.’
‘Jack says he was trying to preserve your honour,’ Nigel parrotted.
‘I don’t need my honour preserving,’ Archie bellowed back, and I heard Ciss laughing heartily. I couldn’t wait to get away, and join up again with old friends and…
‘I’ve had my share of racy encounters,’ resumed Archie, obviously a little squiffy. ‘I could tell you some juicy stories from the old days, when I was playing detective.’
‘Oh, Jack, he’s off again. I didn’t know insurance could be so exciting.’
‘I’ll give you some real stories to write about,’ continued Archie.
‘I’ll bring my tape recorder.’ I said, and Nigel yelled my words back.
‘Plagiarize everyone else’s life?’ retorted Archie.
‘That’s what it’s all about,’ I said, and Nigel reiterated.
‘True, true,’ sighed Archie.
‘Look, Nigel, this is costing you a fortune and -’
‘You can afford for it, you’re the rich author now,’ said Nigel. I wish. ‘So, have you and Liz got everything together?’
I ran through the list: passport, tickets and money…and signed off with kisses, just as Liz made her appearance. ‘It’s pissing down out there again. I can’t wait to get out this place. Been the Gedwoods’ arse of a summer this year. Oh shit, now Nigel’s got me saying it. Jack - where the hell does that come from?’
‘Oh, it’s one of those things….lost in the anals of history,’
‘Very funny.’ Liz gave me a sly, searching look. ‘I’ll interrogate Nigel about it when I see him next. By the way, have you seen the news?’ She flopped open the sodden evening paper she’d used as cover from the rain. ‘Look,’ she said, pointing out the article, ‘old Adolf’s kicked the bucket. Son of a bitch escaped justice. Shame. The biggest bastards always get away.’
‘Do they?’ I wondered. ‘He lost his bloodline. Maybe that’s what killed him in the end?’
Liz pondered for a moment. ‘True. I guess that’s what finish him off. And now the vultures are picking over the estate apart. Well good luck to them.’ She screwed up the rag and tossed it in the bin. ‘Come on, Jack, let’s go. I want to get a last gasp in the pub. Blow a bit of smoke into people’s face.’
‘Oh shit, yeah - smoking ban kicks in tomorrow.’
‘Thank god we’ll be out of here by then. Mind you, I’m dreading it when winter comes. I’ll feel like a right old slapper hanging around on the street corner in all that wind and rain. Think I can still pull a punter or two?’ I daren’t comment and just gave one of my clueless looks. Just then, I spied a young woman approaching the table. Liz turned, following my eye line. ‘Well Jack, shall I try my new glamour-dyke patter on her?’
‘Liz,’ I said, reproachfully.
‘Okay, Jack. I’ll go for a nose around. When you’ve finished working your charms on her, you’ll find me in the true crime’s section.’ And off she tripped.
The young woman, with the healthy figure, who sat facing me, I guessed, was in her early twenties. Her ocean blue eyes and handsome glowing smile perked me up, and I thought, shaking the memory of my previous punter, at least I’d end this book signing with a bright conversation.
‘Terrible out there,’ she said, her voice clear and bright with no discernable accent. I nodded a yes. ‘I thought I’d missed you.’
I give her a moment to pat down her straw-coloured hair, which hungs long, touching raindrops onto her bare shoulders.
She looked familiar. I’ve never been one with a photographic memory, especially of every hello and handshake in my life. I pulled a thought-bound brow. ‘You don’t mind me asking but…have we met before?’
She seemed taken aback, and threw me a sympathetic smile. ‘I’m surprised you remember me. Wales - on Great Orme’s Head?’
I pondered for a moment. ‘Of course, weren’t you the girl in the white dress and the big white hat…?’ I said, miming a circumference around my head.
She nodded and chuckled. ‘And you were the poor fella getting an earful from that woman, after you told her kid off for picking those flowers.’
‘Yeah.’ I nodded back. ‘She’d probably had a bad day, that’s all.’
‘Or a bad life?’ Letting out shrugging a smile. ‘You were right, though, I mean, telling the girl off for picking those flowers.’
‘Suppose so.’ And I returned the shrug and smile. For a moment we gazed in bemusement at each other, as though there was something more there to say.
Hesitantly, she broke the spell. ‘I’d be grateful if…if you’d sign your book for me?’
‘Oh, of course…um, that’s what I’m here for. Is it for you?’
‘No, I’ve read it and…I really enjoyed it and…no, sorry, it’s…it’s for my dad. He likes these kinds of books. You know, true stories like. Says it reminds him of his past.’ She grinned nervously. ‘He’s had quite an up-and-down sort life himself.’
Please not another life story, I thought, but…‘Well, you must love your father a great deal, I mean, to come all this way from Wales.’
‘Oh no. I don’t live in Wales. I was just doing some work there for my MA.’
‘Oh yes, I remember now. You were reading some book on plants and -’
‘Yes, well…palaeobotany, to be exact. I was doing a paper on the ancient costal flora of…but, well, that doesn’t matter. I’m sorry.’
‘No, don’t say that. It sounds interesting and…’ She blushed as though the word was too clever or… ‘Well then, what do you want me to write?’
‘Write?’ she mused.
‘Inscription?’ I said, pointing my nib down onto the flyleaf.
‘To dad. No. To the best dad in the world. No…wait.’
‘It seems strange me writing: to the best dad in the world, but.... Oh…wait. Don’t write this, but…’ she was struggling for the right words. ‘To the best dad a daughter could ask for.’
‘Is that what you want me to write?’ I asked calmly. This hadn’t been the first time I’d been here.
‘No,’ she replied, shaking her head. ‘It just seems so…so clichéd. I guess everyone asks for something like that?’
‘Mm, it’s quite popular – well, dedications and the like,’ I said, trying not to seem cynical.
And so, she’s off now, trying to find the words: ‘thank you for being there for me…. Thank you for caring…for helping me…and…guiding me. Yes…from your loving daughter…’
And as she repeated the lines, I transcribed them; finally flourishing my signature. ‘There we go. All done and dusted.’ And I blotted the page, closed the book and held it out.
But she held back. Hesitant. ‘It just seems so…I don’t know.’
She moved to get up, her features changing from confusion to distress. ‘I’m sorry. I just…just wanted to say: thank you.’
‘Thank you? Oh - thank you, dad. You want to me to…’ I nodded at the book in hand.\
‘No I…I don’t know…I…I shouldn’t have come here.’ She shook her head. ‘No. Sorry, I didn’t mean like…’ And she took the book. But I couldn’t release it.
It was my turn to fall into confusion. We gazed at each other in silence…and then it clicked. Something in her face – the shape of her lips, the shine in her eyes…
‘I wouldn’t mind meeting your father,’ I said, breaking the tension. And she let go of the book. ‘He must have quite a story to tell?’
‘He has, but…no.’ She shook her head and rain drops scatters her white blouse. ‘Please. I shouldn’t have come. He wanted to…to…I’m sorry.’
‘I…I need to tell him something,’ I said as calmly I could. But felt my chest tighten.
‘No, please…Jack. Can I call you, Jack?’
‘Yes, but…I don’t even know you name.’
‘It’s…’ she checked her words, and bowed her head.
Raising it, I could see she had managed to compose herself again. ‘Dad says there’s some things best left in the past. Not forgotten, but - you do understand, don’t you - please?’
I took a deep breath. There was a past, once too near – too near - and now…?
Yes, she was right - it was best left. I didn’t know what she knew about her father’s past, but I understood what damage could I do. There was all this noble shit that went through my head about letting go - but it wasn’t that. What was it that Liz said to me once – you can’t just bring your present into the past…
I wrote my mobile number on a bookmark along with a few words, slipping it between the leaves of the book. But then I had second thoughts…
I took it out.
Why leave such choices for people to agonise over? After all, my name was in the public eye. If he wanted to, he could always find me, then… ‘It’s on me,’ I said, as I handed over the book.
She thanked me as she wrestled it into her shoulder bag.
‘How is he doing?’ I asked.
‘He’s doing fine,’ she replied, still watching her words.
‘He must be…I mean, with a daughter like you?’
She looked down, and let out an embarrassed laugh. ‘Goodbye – Jack,’ she said, putting out her hand.
‘Goodbye…’ whoever. ‘Say hello from me, will you. And wish him well.’
‘And I hope he enjoys the stories.’
‘I’m sure I will. Are they all true: all those stories of life in bedsitland?’
‘Mostly. Some are from experience. Some are personal histories. Then things others have told me. And, of course, some are urban myths. Who know with those? Just the names have been changed, as they say.’
‘Of course.’ She reached out. We shook hands gently, exchanged smiles and sad understanding looks.
‘You’re not even going to tell me your first name, are you?’
She shook her head, and releasing her hand, I felt the warm release of a generation from its troubled past. I felt forgiven.
After nodding a final goodbye, she turned, and vanished.
I stood still, staring in space, as if in a trance. Looking down, a single raindrop has transferred onto my forefinger. I rubbed it away against my thumb, and watched it slowly disappear…
‘Well, Jack,’ cried Liz, ‘the way you two were carrying on, I thought for one moment you were on the turn?’
‘Come on, Liz, I need a cig…and a good stiff drink.’
‘Now that’s my kind of man.’
‘Now who’s on the turn?’
Outside the rain had taken a break, and I stopped to light up and watch the traffic as it hissed along, and the pedestrians jostled by.
As I looked up Princess Street I saw a rainbow scything above, probably casting its crook down on some young dreaming soul. The sun beamed from behind a cloud. That kid was reaching out, trying to touch that sun and…yeah - stupid.
Suddenly, I was up there, looking down, scouring the crowd for that familiar face. But I woke rapidly and felt back to earth again. Liz was calling me on, and we set off arm-in-arm towards the Village. What a strange couple we made.
‘You know what puzzles me about you, Jack?’
‘Tell me - I’m dying to know.’
‘When I was changing your dressing, I noticed that you had no tattoos. No even a buzzing bee.’
‘Why - what’s wrong with that? A lot of people don’t. You know, Liz, this mate of mine once said to me – I don’t need a tattoo to hold a memory, when I’ve got so many scars. I just run my fingers along them, and I feel how bitter and sweet it has all been. Corny, aye?’
‘No. Anyway, you’ve got plenty of those. Not that it shows, you bendy bastard.’
I smiled. ‘Oh well, Liz. Perhaps I’ll have those words on my gravestone.’
‘Now that would be corny.’
‘I guess so.’
And with that, we were lost to the crowd.