Authors: Louise Welsh
Tags: #Fiction, #Suspense, #Psychological, #Thrillers
Ah, sweet whisperer, my dear wanton, I
Have followed you, shawled in your warmth, since I left the breast,
Been toady for you and pet bully,
And a woeful heartscald to the parish priest;
And look! If I took the mint by storm and spent it,
Heaping on you in one wild night the dazzle of a king’s whore,
And returned next morning with no money for a curer,
Your publican would throw me out the door.
'Raftery’s Dialogue With The Whiskey',
THE AEROPLANE WHEELS touched the runway, jerking me awake.
'I envy you, that’s a gift.'
The blonde woman in the next seat smiled. I wiped a hand over my face.
'You slept like the dead all the way from Tegel. You’re lucky, I don’t sleep like that in my own bed.'
Some other time I might have asked how she slept in strangers’ beds, but I kept my smart mouth shut and waited while the pilot bumped us into a smooth landing, just another flight. The seatbelt lights turned off and the business types got to their feet and started pulling their bags from the overhead lockers. A mobile phone chimed awake and a man said, I’ll call you back in ten minutes. I’m on a plane. He laughed. No it’s OK, we’ve landed. My insomniac neighbour stood up and I slipped my equipment case from under the seat in front. It felt heavy, but I’d added nothing to it in Berlin, except for the envelope packed tight with bank notes that I hadn’t bothered to count.
The queue of passengers edged along the aisle then down the metal staircase and onto the tarmac. No one kissed the runway. I pulled my coat close and kept my eyes on the ground.
A long line of luggage lurched along the carousel but I’d left my broken suitcase along with its contents in a hotel room in Berlin.
The taxi-rank controller was bundled against the weather in a fluorescent jacket that looked regulation issue and an old checked bunnet that didn’t. He slammed the cab door on the safely settled traveller in front then turned to me.
He smiled patiently, a man used to jet-lag and bad English, and asked, 'Where in Glasgow son?'
He wrote something on his clipboard saying, 'That’ll do.' And waved one of the white cabs forward.
The driver asked the same question that his supervisor had. This time I said, 'Do you know anywhere I could rent a bedsit in the city centre?'
He looked at me in the rear-view mirror, seeing the same face I’d splashed cold water on only minutes before in the gents. A nondescript face with a hard cleft in the centre of its brow that might suggest ruthlessness or worry, but nothing that would make me stand out in a crowd.
I said, 'There’ll be a bung in it for you.'
And he swung the taxi out of the airport, down into Glasgow and towards the Gallowgate.
I sat in the back and closed my eyes, wondering how I’d got myself into this mess and what lay in store for me in the city I used to call home.
THE FIRST NIGHT I met Sylvie she saved me from dying. The clock has ticked round and the pages have been flipped on the calendar, its numbers switching from red to black and back, shades the same as playing-card suits, and I realise that over a year has passed since Sylvie and I first met.
In those dim days I was known as William Wilson, Mentalist and Illusionist. Conjuring was throwing off the shackles of the dinner suit and velvet bow tie. It had slipped off the family viewing prime-time TV slot and into the clubs, gone underground, kicked around with freak shows and circuses, and now the feeling was it was ripe to hit the big time again. I was one of the many who thought they might just be able to shake the profession back to life, if only I got the right break. Like a gambler waiting on the right cut of the cards.
I’d left Glasgow for London seven years ago and had been toiling through the British circuit ever since, long enough to almost recognise what town I was in, long enough not to care. I was a warm-up act for a whole trough of comedians and stand ups. The guy nobody came to see. I’d performed in the King’s, the Queen’s, the Prince’s and the Consort; done my stuff in the Variety, the Civic, the Epic and the Grand. I’d released doves across the ceiling of the Playhouse and watched them crap on the heads of the crowd in the Cliffs Pavilion. In Liverpool a woman fainted on stage and was dragged into the wings. In Portsmouth a row of sailors chased an usher through the aisles. In Belfast I slept with a girl in the Botanic Hotel.
I’d had professional excitements too. A TV scout who thought he might get me a slot that could lead to a series, an independent production company who proposed a documentary about my act. But in the end it seemed they were bigger failures than me. At least I could put a show on the road.
My agent was Richard Banks, Rich to his friends. He represented a slough of comedians, a couple of afternoon quiz show presenters and me. Rich had been an operator since the days when variety was king. In the fifties he’d mopped up the ENSA boys, the sixties had seen him branching into teenage pop and by the seventies he was a regular supplier of what he liked to call talent to piers from Brighton to Blackpool. A couple of his stable had even made it as far as Saturday Night at the London Palladium. Then entertainment had improved and Rich had moved on, signing a new generation of stand-ups to his fleet. Rich was realistic and adaptable but he was loyal too, after all, as he said, 'Loyalty costs nothing William.'
Though you can bet if it did Richard would have included it just above the VAT in his agent’s fee. He brought loyalty up early in our relationship. He had an office in Crouch End. I’d popped in on spec, part because I was passing and part to remind him of my existence. I’d tried and failed to work a James Bond/Moneypenny routine with Mrs Pierce, Rich’s steel-grey coiffured and steelier-eyed secretary. Now she just glanced at me from behind her word processor and said, 'Mr Banks has someone with him, but he won’t mind if you go through.'
The man in the visitor’s chair was a sprightly seventy with a boyish face that should have been in black and white but was red-cheeked, purple-veined and rheumy-eyed. He’d leaned back in his chair, his pale hair flopping away from his forehead, a brilliant advert for toupee tape. His upside-down smile was tight. We both knew my unannounced entrance was his cue to leave. Rich introduced us and I remembered the name from long ago, though I still couldn’t recall what I’d seen him in.
'Wilson, not a very stagey name,' he said over my shoulder to Richard as he shook my hand, trying and failing to squeeze my knuckles. I mugged a wince, just to please him, and his eyes sparkled.
'Times change,' said Rich, getting to his feet.
'They surely do.' The aged theatrical nodded his head and looked slowly round the room at the black and white photos of yesterday’s stars that mingled with the portraits of Rich’s current stable. Perhaps he was searching for a picture of himself, perhaps at his age you get used to looking at places as if you’re never going to see them again. 'Well, Rich, it’s been lovely but I can’t sit gabbing to you all day.' He raised his mug, pinkie outstretched, and knocked back the last of his tea with a loud slurp. 'So what’s this one? Another comic?'
The elderly gent rose slowly, his thin body looking too young for his old man head, and pulled on a spotless gabardine I pegged as at least fifteen years old.
'Conjurer, eh? Known a few of them in my time. None of them made it big, but they were nice boys.'
I leered at him.
'I’m not a nice boy.'
'No,' his eyes glanced me up and down, 'I didn’t think so. Still, nice or not I’d give the last ten years of my life to have six months at the age you are now. Bet the offers never stop coming in for this one, eh Rich?'
Rich gave a noncommittal smile and the old man laughed, suddenly spry as he gathered his hat, scarf, gloves, briefcase and a carrier bag of groceries, fluttering apologies to Richard for taking so much of his time. He winked at me on the way out and said, 'Never mind dear, we all have our dry spells.'
I gave him a wide-boy grin and held the door open. When he was safe in the outer office, chatting to Mrs Pierce with a familiarity she’d never have tolerated from me, I took his seat, wincing against the warmth stored in the cushions and said, 'Nobody loves a fairy when they’re forty.'
Rich gave me a long stare, as near to a frown as I’ve seen him come, then he gave me a lesson.
Stuffed at the back of his filing cabinets were the profiles of men with a million mother-in-law and darkie jokes, female impersonators, ventriloquists, crooners and jugglers. He plonked the files on the desk in front of me and I flicked through them for form’s sake. Each file had a photograph paperclipped to its top left-hand corner. Outmoded hairdos, polyester dinner suits, big bow ties and grins that had once seemed alive, but now looked desperate, caught in a mad moment twenty or so years ago.
'I keep them on the books,' Rich said, 'there’s no harm in it. They don’t take up much space and it’s nice to be nice. After all, put together, these kids made me a lot of money at one time. And anyway, who knows when some post-modern ironist is going to suddenly discover one of these has-beens was a genius? But just remember son, it’s like they say in the financial ads, your shares may go down as well as up. So,' he tapped his nose like a tipster revealing a cert, 'remember, loyalty costs nothing.'
Once upon a time Rich had thought I might be in the new wave of conjurers, 'the post-Paul Daniels brigade’ he called them. These days we weren’t close, but he let me call his answerphone direct. The evening this story starts was the first time in weeks he’d called me back.
'It may not be the big time William’ — Richard hailed originally from Southend. He had a voice as loud as a McGill postcard, all whelks, beer and fat ladies flashing their drawers. I held the receiver an inch or two from my ear; there was no premium in adding deafness to my problems. 'But there’ll be some interesting people there. You never know who you’ll meet.' I’d made some noncommittal sound, and Rich had gone on with his spiel, selling it to me though he knew I’d take it. 'You’ll have fun. It’s a police retirement night.'
'Lovely, just what I need. The filth interrogating me on how I do my act.'
'Is that any attitude to have towards Her Majesty’s finest? Anyway they’ll love it, William. These guys are into lies and misdirection big time.' Rich paused and I could hear him dragging on his cigarette. 'Tell you, here’s an idea, pick on the weediest one and do some funny business with his handcuffs.' His laugh caught in his throat and there was a pause as he struggled to catch his breath. I wondered if he was lying down on his office divan.
'That’s wonderful advice, Richard: pick on a weedy looking polis, the one with the Napoleon complex. I’ll remember that. So who am I opening for?'
'You know these events, William. They’re not name in lights occasions, but they have the benefit of equality, there’s no headline act.'