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Look back in manger

I have a file on my computer labelled “The Book of Misfires”. It’s a collection of novels which I started but did not finish. It contains 10 abandoned projects and runs to just under 130,000 words in total.

In mitigation, most of these stories were not abandoned because I couldn’t finish them; instead, they were cut short rather cynically.

Having had my dreams of literary stardom dashed after grinding out 200,000 words of not so much deathless as deathly prose with Meat, I felt I had to be a bit more businesslike in my writing projects. That book took me more than four years to finish. That’s a lot of huffing and puffing for something so high-risk, I thought, employing something resembling reason.

I theorised that I could sell novels to discerning agents after having written just three chapters. Upon reading these, the underwear of the London literati would simply melt away, and they’d beat my door down for the rest of the book. Which I’d then provide, of course, with a not-so-fond-farewell bid to my colleagues, and a chunky advance smouldering in the bank. 

And to think some people say an imagination is an unhealthy thing… 

I sent the opening chapters of Mortis Lock to lots of agents in my Writers’ and Artists’ Yearbook, spending a small fortune in printing and posting in those not-quite-digital days. I’ll never forget the look of horror on the woman’s face as I approached the counter at the Post Office with my envelopes and paperclipped sheets. “No’ you again!”

I got no bites whatsoever, and so another 10k was filed into the trunk, unseen by anyone else… until now. 

Mortis Lock is a crime novel about a stand-up comedian who smells a rat when his best friend dies unexpectedly, supposedly a suicide.

I started writing it in 2004 – it astonishes me that it was so long ago – and I vividly remember the day the idea first occurred to me. While I was reading Ian Rankin’s Black and Blue on a sun-lounger in my back garden, I realised that a man I deeply disliked bore a close resemblance to an artist’s impression of Glasgow’s still-at-large serial killer, Bible John.

The man I knew is just about the right age, and the likeness is uncanny. He was also quite psychopathic in all the right ways for someone you suspect to be a strangler of women, although he had no biblical leanings whatsoever. I was strongly minded to tip off the cops, anyway. Some dark nights, I still am.

Among the many things which date Mortis Lock, you will notice one part where people are smoking inside a social club. It’s like when you see goalkeepers picking up passbacks in vintage football highlights. “Hey! You can’t do that!” 

If any agents feel like beating down my door for the rest of it, don’t be shy… Remember, no project is finished or unfinished… Not dead, but undead. 

Seven men, one coffin, six shoulders braced against the wood. Only one of the men was not a beanpole basketball-playing cloud-bothering bastard, and that man was me. Thanks to my stature the coffin was hanging like the shelf in the basement your father doesn’t like to talk about. It was ludicrous, but no-one said anything. It was my best friend’s funeral, after all.

I hadn’t realised Scott Breely’s little cousin was a good three inches taller than me until he lined up opposite me by the side of the box. When we lifted it up and finally allowed it to come down on our shoulders I was literally letting the side down. In fact, I literally could not keep my end up. I was on my tiptoes, trying to make my right shoulder reach its underside. Talk about tilting at windmills. I thought: this is how Tom Cruise felt, attending all those movie premieres with Nicole Kidman.

If anyone in the church noticed, they didn’t laugh. I glanced at the pews as the six pallbearers shuffled past the congregation to the strains of the closing hymn and all I could see were white faces and red eyes. I focused on Scott’s father’s lapel in front of me, tiny beads of water dotted around the black fabric, until we got out of the church and loaded the box into the hearse.

There was a little bit of waiting around while they got the cars ready. I was travelling with my mum and dad, but of course we had to wait until the black cars were away first. The hearse went first, with all the floral tributes bunched up against the windows. It looked a bit choked in there; too many tributes written in white petals: ‘ZORRO’, his nickname at work – answers on a postcard to the usual address, please – ‘SON’ and ‘BUD’. ‘BUD’ was from me.

I watched the first Roller fill up with the top team for today. Scott’s dad, Danno Breely, Danno’s latest squeeze (Tess, or Tricia, this one was called), along with Scott’s mother Lucy and her new husband Len. They were all looking old, even Danno’s bit of fluff, who might have been a blonde bombshell 20 years ago. Danno, with his long hair tied back, flecks of silver showing, put me in mind of Willie Nelson.

One other person climbed in after them, helped by gentle hands; Summer.

I’d not been looking forward to seeing Summer again. It was awkward enough when Scott, her fiancé, was still alive; the air kisses, the banal chat, insipid conversations, masking the tension.

The girl was shattered, and every eye followed her as she made her way out of the church into the car. She looked numb, fragile. Her face was clear of lipstick, long blonde hair pulled back into a secretarial pleat and her milk white face a sharp contrast to the black dress. You got a sense people were crying for her, her especially.

“The whole world in front of them,” I heard one old dear say.

“Terrible,” someone else said. “How do you rebuild from that?”

“Terrible.”

“It must be the not knowing that’s the worst.”

“Terrible.”

All the boys were there with their partners, as well as a few of Scott’s university pals who I didn’t know so well. I nodded to all of them. Big Cairney tipped me a wink as he shepherded his tiny little missus past us towards the car park, and as he did so a tear rolled from his eye into his black beard, lost forever. That ridiculous sight – did King Kong cry? Did Godzilla? – might have brought on a sniffle in me had my father not put a hand on my shoulder at that moment.

“Best we get to the cemetery,” he said. “Rain’s coming on.” I nodded and followed him, my mum and dad and my little sister Collette into the car. My older brother Raymond and his wife followed behind us.

My mum, bless her, tried everything she could to inject some levity into the journey from the chapel to the cemetery. “Well he’d be glad he got a service in the old church, eh? That was his style.” Scott was an architect. He liked Gothic things, imposing buildings, soot-blasted old places. She may have been right. I didn’t say anything. My mother looked terrible, I thought. Like something had taken residence under the skin of her face. Something to do with HRT or pills or lack of them, I wasn’t sure. My dad was driving, saying nothing, reading my mood but letting her prattle on. The radio was on low and it was raining. I’d have taken my own car but I knew there were a few drinks to come. To tell you the truth, I’d had one or two already.

It was at the graveside that I felt my chest starting to hitch. It was a bit like hiccups, and I tackled the spasms and hitches the same way I would the windipops, by holding my breath. I made fists to keep it together. Squeeze, and release. In, and out. I couldn’t stop the tears though and I brushed them away, shaking, ashamed. I didn’t look at anyone’s face and the priest’s words melted into the rain.

I kept my head down as I took the strain of the cords – Christ, the box was heavy – and I helped lower my best friend into his hole in the ground.

Danno, Lucy and Summer all spread the dirt over the box. Danno nodded at me and numbly I did the same, taking the crisp earth from what looked like a cigar box and letting it escape through my fingers into the pit. Then Summer came back to the grave, openly weeping. That beautiful face disfigured in grief, like a bloom pressed into a book. She let a blood red rose drop onto the coffin.

I had a couple of conversations with the boys when it was over. There were a few hugs, plenty of promises to meet up for a drink at the wake, and beyond, invitations to come and stay, pledges to go out for a meal or a drink or anything. And we filed down the hill past all the tombstones. I took a look back at the grave, the gravediggers’ little putting green carpet framing the wound in the earth, and the white letters by the side of the hole:

‘BUD’.

 

************

 

The wake was worse, and I told myself to keep a lid on the drink. The jocularity, the little bursts of laughter and pockets of smiley suits got on my tits. Cairney came over for a while and we tipped a couple of jars and ate a few tuna and onion sandwiches by ourselves by the social club bar for a while. He was the only person I asked: Does anyone know? Does anyone know why?

Cairney looked away from my eyes and got very serious. “Easy fella. Drink up. Me and you’ll have a convo about this later. Just drink up. My advice? Get out of here as soon as you can.”

I didn’t catch what he meant. I thought he meant Summer. But he couldn’t know about that. “There’s too much going on at wakes, fella. Too many things in the background. And there’s a great big thing in the background in this one. You get more fights at wakes than you do at weddings. Even in this town. Just split as soon as you can. My advice to you.” Then he grinned, crooked teeth pushing to the surface of his thatched face. “But man, can you believe he died mid-season? Imagine not knowing if we’d won the title or not?” I loved Cairney but I couldn’t take the stand-up routine from him. Not there. Thankfully he took his own advice, and disappeared with his brassy little wife before long.

Mum and dad left early. My dad approached me as I was enduring a long blether with Scott’s auntie, a woman I’d never met, and gently asked me if I wanted a lift. “No? Okay. Well, give us a call if you want us to come and collect you later. Mind yourself, eh?” He made it sound like he was concerned for my well-being in general, but from the look in his eyes I knew he was echoing what Cairney had said.

I didn’t know that it was getting late and that I was drunk until I passed Summer on my way to the toilets. She just appeared, a phantom, as I rounded a corner. I lurched a little to get out of her way. She didn’t change direction, but instead clapped her hands on either side of my shoulders. “Well soldier,” she said, rubbing my arms, “you look like a wee lost soul there.” I hugged her, hard. For a few seconds her head was pressed against my chest, and she held onto me by the fingernails. Then it dispersed into a vague Funeral Cuddle – lots of slapping and patting on backs and shoulders. Her eyes were moist. “How are you?” she whispered.

“Just swell,” I said. I swallowed. “I’m awful sorry, Summer.”

She nodded. “We’ll have a talk later, yeah?”

“Of course, of course.” I looked away from her. Meeting Summer Donahue again at last, and that’s all I could say to her. Summer’s mum and dad interrupted the chat, such as it was. I had to restrain myself from pulling back suddenly.

Steenie Donahue looked like a bit like Lurch from the Addams Family. Everyone had said so, especially Scott. He had given Summer her long limbs but thankfully not her features. “Now then,” he bellowed in his best stage tone, “how’s young Jason doing?”

“Fine Mr Donahue,” I said, nodding at Summer’s mum, a timid figure at his back. “Yourselves?” Scott hadn’t liked him, hadn’t taken so well to the man’s bluster. I could dig that.

“Oh, bearing up, you know.” Stock replies for a funeral. They were all on their way out, and I walked them to the front door of the club. It was still raining outside. Steenie had a new Beamer, I noticed. Newly minted judging by the licence plate, black as the hearse we’d taken Scott in.

“If there’s anything you need,” I said to Summer, “give me a call, okay?”

“Sure,” she said, managing a smile, following her folks to the car. She indicated the chapel hall. “I didn’t like to stay, you know? It gets sort of…” she made a fanning gesture at her throat.

“I’m feeling you.”

“I’ll drop you an e-mail.”

“You take care now.”

Steenie flashed the lights at me as they pulled out of the car park.

 

************

 

Back inside, Danno Breely’s ex-wife and his latest bird were locked in intense conversation, both of them with lit cigarettes in their hands. Scott’s mum’s husband sat at the other side of the table from them, nodding vigorously and laughing when he was supposed to. The total package was that of a bank manager with this guy, but you could break him down into his constituent parts. The tweed jacket of a bumbling academic, the dry handshake of a clergyman, the baldness of a coot. He was all wrong. In fact I think he did work in a bank; I’m sure Scott had mentioned it once. He seemed plain, nice. He couldn’t have looked less like Danno Breely.

Danno was holding court at the bar with a load of people I didn’t know. Occasionally there were whoops of laughter. People who had been on the verge of leaving found themselves staying to listen to his patter. Names like Danno Breely only sound right if they belong to rock stars, and he was one. Danno Breely, singer and rhythm guitarist for The Rivets. A rock band made up of Clyde shipyard workers. Hairy bastards, very loud, often misogynistic, vague leanings towards the occult, coming on like a souped-up Black Sabbath. Better, in my opinion. Big in the seventies, middling in the eighties, dead for much of the nineties, resurrected for the odd comeback tour and album in the noughties. Not a superstar by any standards, but his name and his face always rang a bell, as did his songs on the rare occasion they made it to the radio.

He had partied with the best of them but had managed not to fritter away his modest fortune. Royalties from their one big transatlantic chart smash, which Danno had written – a big favourite with advertisers throughout the years; even now it was hard to think of the crunchy riff without thinking of chewing gum – kept rolling in. He was a record producer now, mainly based in London and still doing alright, but The Rivets still made the odd appearance. In fact they’d opened up one of the big festivals last year, or the year before.

He had been an embarrassment to Scott, his only child, for most of the boy’s adolescence of course (even when grunge came about, and you would often hear the odd bored-sounding American superstar mention The Rivets as a big influence), but he seemed impossibly cool to me and the rest of the boys.

Danno had split with Lucy when Scott was four. He hadn’t really been around when Scott was growing up, just the odd exchange trip once a month to his big house somewhere up north. But pity the idiot who doubted he’d loved his son. So he said, anyway.

“Jason Mulcahy,” he said, gallus as ever, seizing me as I went past him and his entourage. “Now this kid could play his guitar. D’you still keep up with your pickin’, son? I was going to give this boy a spot on one of our tours, you know. Dagger was just about falling asleep on stage every night, and I thought, fuck it I’ll get our Jason in instead. Turned out he was too expensive!” Dagger was Bill ‘Dagger’ Daggett, the lead guitarist for The Rivets. Nigel Tuffnell to Danno’s David St Hubbins. He overdosed in 1985, three days after Live Aid. Danno had kicked him out of the Rivets two years before. A sort of Brian Jones situation, but slower and without the swimming pool.

“I thought I was the comedian,” I said. “I’ll crack the jokes.” Everyone laughs at this, of course. I’m famous too you know. Oh yeah.

Slowly, people drifted away and I got talking to Danno at the bar. Drinks were sank. We couldn’t help ourselves. He kept saying, “I was meaning to talk to you.” He told me that his son had adored me, that we were like soul mates. He said it a few times. I couldn’t say anything. He was upset and pissed and I was embarrassed.

“He was going places,” Danno said. I was glad there wasn’t much bitterness in his voice. “He had that new job. He’d just got engaged to that lovely lassie.”

“I know.”

“It didn’t make any sense, Jason.”

I didn’t want to say it. Had told myself over and over, don’t say it. “Danno, I had no idea. I had no idea there was something wrong. If I’d known…” And shit, I’d  said it. There it was. And yet I didn’t say it. What I meant was:

I didn’t know your son was going to kill himself.

“It wasn’t… I’m not prepared to believe it was that.” He didn’t want to say suicide, no-one did. “Someone was out of line.” He was shouting. Worried glances from the bar staff. “Some fucker… was out of line. And when I find out who it was…” He drew a finger across his throat then took a long, slow sip from his glass. “Mark my fucking words.”

 

************

 

I’ve been meaning to talk to you.

I walked home. The chapel hall wasn’t too far from my parents’ place. I stumbled along, feeling sorry mostly for myself, encountering no-one on the streets. The odd car fizzed by in the wet road. I let myself, my new black suit, take a soaking. I felt I’d earned it. Danno had asked if I wanted to come back to the house for a nightcap. He and his bird were staying over with Lucy and her man. They’d have a wee party. Thanks but no thanks.

“Not that kind of party, you cheeky cunt!” Playful slap.

There was something Scott wanted you to have.

Contrary to popular opinion no fights or arguments had developed. I had a walk in the rain, feeling sorry for myself. But even sad bastards get sick of the rain and soon I made it up to my street. Scott’s mum’s place was round the corner where the bigger houses were; I fancied I could see the flashing lights, the muted thunder of a sound system up full blast. Summer’s parents were somewhere beyond even that, behind the black tree-line. She’d be staying there tonight, I knew.

I think he knew something was going down, son.

Good old dad was waiting up for me, of course. Sitting in his chair, back rigid, a book open on his lap. The pose I’ll always remember him by. “Good night?” he asked. He looked better than me even with his glasses on, the old bastard. Lined but lean, a three-times-a-week man down at the gym. Like Danno, showing signs of his mileage but not looking his age.

“Not bad. I’ll just crash if you don’t mind, dad.”

“Of course. You remember the way to your room, I think.”

I only just found it two days ago. I’ve no idea what it is. I didn’t look. Don’t have the heart just now.

I hadn’t stayed at my parents’ since last Christmas. My room and Raymond’s rooms had been transformed from teenagers’ dungeons to minimalist chambers, stark white walls and wooden flooring, tiny little pictures placed here and there. Scandinavian. A touch sterile for my tastes. An ensuite bathroom as well, now, I noted – that was new. How I would have killed for that when I needed a spew during my teenage clandestine drinking years.

Raymond had gone back home with his wife. Collette was asleep in her room, I guessed. It had always been assumed I’d come back, though no-one had raised it. I sat down on the bed and unlaced my shoes. The bedding felt fresh, smelled fresh. I felt a burst of nostalgia.

“Jason?” My dad appeared at the door.

“Hey there,” I said, peeling off a sock.

“You did well. I’m proud of you. It was a hell of a day.”

“Thanks dad. Goodnight, eh?” I felt my voice falter. And all of a sudden my dad looked drawn. His bottom lip twitched. He took his leave then, closing the door firmly, before it got any more sickly sweet.

But please, Jason. Please. If it’s anything relevant… anything at all… you’ll tell me, won’t you?

I fell asleep soon enough. I forgot all about the package in my suit jacket until I groped inside the pockets, fearing I’d lost my wallet, when I woke up the next day.

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