This will be my free stuff page. ‘Stuff’ sounds plural doesn’t it, so I’ll either have to think of something else to add to the short story I plan to stick up here, or work out what the singular of ‘stuff’ is and change the name of the page.
The short story will be the one that was long-listed for the Fish Prize 2012/13, ‘Leave it to Bertie’, a sort of modern day Wodehouse set in a police station in Newport, Wales. I won’t stick it up straight off as it contains a line or three from Duffy’s ‘Stepping Stone’, so probably need to square that off with her permissions’ people first. If they knock the idea on the head, I’ll just have to have a little re-jig and take the offending lines out. Shame, but if the music business don’t want the free plug then that’s their lookout.
So, BMG, your move…
[Edited 17 October 2014] Right, I can’t be bothered waiting for a reply from BMG that I’ll probably never get, so I’ve done a slight rewrite to remove any verbatim lines from Duffy’s ‘Stepping Stone’. Here’s the revamped story:
‘Leave it to Bertie’ – by Sean McCann
The custody sergeant looked up. ‘Ah, there you are, Bertie,’ he said, as Lodge loomed into view, as silently and sizeably as a supertanker in Milford Haven.
‘Sarge.’ Obedience, insolence, curiosity and boredom, all in a sing-song syllable.
To Lodge, it was inexplicable how they’d got it completely the wrong way round. Clearly – given his problem solving abilities, his countenance, his grandiloquence – they should have called him Jeeves instead.
‘Bertie. Can I borrow you for five minutes?’
‘Only if you give me back again, Sarge.’
‘Oh dear. Someone’s been opening their Christmas crackers early.’
‘What’s Santa’s favourite pizza? One that’s deep pan, crisp and even. I steam them open, Sarge. Read the jokes. Seal them back up again. It impresses the kids on the big day.’
The sergeant stared at him. Lodge knew just what the stare was saying: I wouldn’t put it past you. Lodge prided himself on his ability to read faces, and yet not be read by others in turn. He’d made the mistake of telling his wife once, and later had it thrown back in his face. She’d said he was manipulative and untrustworthy, among other things. He felt slightly ill at the thought of her; then recovered to ascertain what the sergeant wanted him for.
At eleven fifteen, Lodge picked up the phone.
‘Someone out front for you, Bertie. A Mr Harris.’
Lodge looked at the clock on the wall. Midday on the dot. ‘On my way, Sarge. Let’s hope he’s as persuasive as he is punctual.’
He hung up and got up in one motion.
Who says men can’t do two things at once?
Through a couple of doors and he was at the front desk, which was less a desk, more a serving hatch. Waiting to be seen, this inclement November morning, were a young couple: shellsuit types.
Harris appeared from round the corner. Fifties-overweight (the cuddly bear look). Throat pouching into neck like a pelican. Piggy-eyed behind glasses. Bald up top but with tinselly skirting. Lodge imagined he could either be a jovial idiot, or full of invective and bile. Here though, the civilian simply looked police station uncomfortable.
Harris was buzzed through and within seconds Lodge was closing the door to IR2 behind them. Introductions out of the way, Lodge re-summarised the situation. A young Russian man had been arrested for jaywalking on the Severn Bridge. He claimed his ship was docked in Port of Newport and he couldn’t get back onboard because of the captain’s propensity to imbibe vodka while sailing the seven seas.
‘I’ve brought my cards,’ said Harris.
‘Then you’re more prepared than I am. I’ll fetch the detainee. Oh, and will you be needing anything for lunch?’
‘Lunch? Ah. Are we likely to be very long?’
‘Shouldn’t I be asking you that, Sir?’
Harris flushed. Lodge considered two possible reasons. One, Harris felt demeaned by the pleasantry. Two, being called “Sir”, in that oh-so-copperly way. There had been an intonation lecture on it during police training.
Lecturer: “Imagine you’re a waiter. A customer spills custard down his front. You say ‘I’ll fetch you a replacement, Sir’, and the ‘Sir’ has to carry unbearable politeness while leaving the customer in no doubt whatsoever that you wanted to say ‘Silly Billy’ instead.”
Lodge left IR2 and lurched along a bright anaemic corridor to the cells. A colleague had once described the station as “a colourless stage for colourful players”. The peephole in the door revealed a young man standing motionless against the far wall, staring straight at the door. Predictably blond, athletic, in a grey hoodie, jeans and white trainers. If he looked Russian, so did half of South Wales.
Wait, there is something.
The eyes: squinted blue, as though against arctic sun. DiCaprian.
Lodge ushered the Russian into IR2; gestured. ‘This, is Mr Harris.’
The Russian’s voice sounded familiar to Lodge; came from deep down. There was a word for it. The Super would know.
Guttural? That’s it. Must mean ‘from the gut’. Well well. You learn something new every day.
‘Sit down please, Dmitri.’
Lodge fouroclocked his right arm. ‘Sit down please, Sir.’
A “Sir” even a native Russian speaker could understand.
Dmitri remained upright. ‘I need stand. I be on ship long time. I feel bad. Land move.’
Dmitri held his hands out towards them, flat, palms down; then began moving them like a puppeteer.
‘I think sailors get seasick on land,’ said Harris, from his moulded plastic seat, its black iron legs in lambda form, viewed in profile.
‘The chair please, Sir.’
Dmitri relented; sat opposite Harris. Lodge leaned against the door.
Jose Mourinho! That’s who he sounds like.
Harris placed the deck picture-down and fanned it open.
The advert for Harris’s services had been a solitary line. At first sight, he had looked like a one-line man to Lodge, too. Now the lawman was beginning to think he’d underestimated the fortune teller. Not ten minutes ago, Harris had informed him that he had stacked the deck in their favour: bad luck cards left behind.
Harris invited the Russian to pick three cards, holding up a trident of fingers to underline the point.
‘Yes. Three. I understand this word.’ Dmitri stared at the cards intently, as though his future really did depend on the choices he made in the next few minutes. He put a fingertip on a card halfway to his right and drew it out slightly, perhaps not daring to turn it over. Harris did so. A Mallard.
Dimitri grinned. ‘Wak wak.’
‘This card,’ said Harris, ‘indicates domesticity.’
‘Domesticity. Home. Your house.’
Lodge shifted his weight on to his other foot, thinking this was kids’ stuff.
‘I understand,’ said Harris.
‘No. You not understand. Captain crazy. Drink vodka. I die on this boat. I cannot go on it more.’
Dmitri’s eyes pleaded alternately with Lodge and Harris. Lodge felt the sap of doubt rising. Maybe the boy was genuinely terrified and he wasn’t just trying to enter the country illegally. If the ship did go down…
Christ! The Sea Empress!
‘It’s not an oil tanker?’
‘Thank God for that,’ said Lodge.
Harris fingered a ‘V’ for victory. Dmitri chose again.
‘No murders, please, Mr Harris,’ Lodge interjected.
Harris ignored him. ‘Powerful,’ he said. ‘You have the power to go home.’
‘I have the power.’ A Neptunian chuckle upwelled from Dmitri’s depths, his eyes narrowing to horizons. Changing method dramatically, he tugged out his choice from near the extreme left of the fan, in a carefree manner, as if resigned to his fate now, powerless.
Harris turned the card up. ‘Pheasant.’
‘I have the power.’
‘No. That was that one.’
‘I have the power.’
‘No. This one is a pheasant. He symbolises physical attraction.’
Dmitri looked blank.
‘Keep it simple,’ Lodge ordered.
Harris gathered his thoughts; pointed at the game bird. ‘Looks good. Nice colours. Male…man bird. Women like him.’
‘Maybe in Wales,’ said Dmitri. ‘In Russia, women cook him.’
Lodge chuckled. Not for long. Dmitri’s mood had turned. He swept up the cards into a hand and then started to lay them all out on the table, picture side up, in random fashion.
‘Bird. Bird bird bird. Bird bird bird bird bird bird. This not look future. This look bird.’
‘It’s looking into the future using birds as messengers. Messages.’
‘I understand messages. I not stupid. Here only good birds. No bad birds. Where is black one?’
Dmitri shrugged. ‘Kraa! Kraa!’
‘And where is this?’
Dmitri rose, turned, manoeuvred the chair aside and began butting his forehead against the wall.
Six foot eight of Lodge stepped forward, his cheeks bloodrushed, the same as Dmitri’s forehead but minus the jigsaw of blue-grey paint. The Russian must have felt it, for he swiped the back of his hand across his brow, removing most of the transfer. He sat, stiffened his forefinger over the tabletop, jackhammered it into the veneer.
‘Where is this?’
‘Woodpecker?’ Harris guessed.
The door opened. ‘Everything alright, Bertie?’
‘Nothing I can’t handle.’
‘Good. Sarge says any more DIY and Ivan’s back in the cells.’
The door closed.
‘He meant me,’ Harris lied, taking an Eifion Harris – Fortune Teller business card and pushing it across the misleading wood pattern.
‘This not say Ivan.’
Dmitri slouched. Lodge inspected him closer now. Shiny in the light from overhead, the flaxen hair said ‘wash me’. His complexion was the white of poverty rather than purity.
‘Right, Dmitri,’ said Lodge evenly. ‘Mr Harris, or Ivan here, has come here to help you. He is not a policeman. I asked him to come here because I understand you are scared to go back on your ship. It is better for you if you decide to go. Today. Otherwise, tomorrow, the border police will take you by force.’
I have the power.
Lodge huffed cynically. If only that were true. Budgets had been slashed due to austerity measures. A year ago, border agents would have already been to pick Dmitri up. Now it was about priority policing and they clearly had other priorities. That meant keeping the Russian overnight, taking up scarce cell space meant for Gwent’s finest. Lodge caught himself. Only five hours into the first of four days ‘on’ and the politics was already getting to him. A call from his stomach notified everyone it was lunchtime, but he liked to finish things he’d started so food would have to wait.
‘Bird,’ grinned Dmitri, pointing at Lodge’s navel. ‘Inside.’
Lodge leaned forward; fingertipped the pheasant.
‘Please,’ said Dmitri suddenly, urgently, through the mask of a young boy. ‘Do not send me back to my wife.’
‘We have no choice.’
But Lodge felt sympathy for the young Russian for the first time. Maybe he too had been called manipulative and untrustworthy, among other things. Lodge tried to imagine the wife, from a mental ID parade of Russian tennis babes. He decided she’d look like Duffy, nibbly ankles, dimply cheeks; but she’d sound like a stuck record.
‘One question. Birds why? This not normal cards.’
‘I didn’t like the normal cards,’ Harris admitted; then, turning to Lodge: ‘I used to say pentangles instead of pentacles. Not good for business.’
‘Didn’t they do a track called ‘Travelling Song’?’
‘Travelling song,’ Dmitri interrupted, as though talking to himself; then, to Harris: ‘Nice pictures.’
‘Don’t bend it please,’ said Harris fussily, reaching out in vain. ‘I made them.’
‘You paint this cards?’
Lodge thought so too.
‘One more,’ said Dmitri, like a mug punter kidding himself his luck was about to change; gathering the cards together like a poker chip haul and pushing them toward the banker. Harris re-formed his deck. Lodge watched, entranced. The way the cards merged reminded him of videos played backwards.
Completely the wrong way round.
The fanned gambit again. Harris looked up.
The Russian reverted to grandmaster form, intense as Kasparov. Lodge noticed that one of the cards had a slight corner to it.
Harris upturned a swallow.
‘Travelling song! Okay. I go Russia! Today!’
Dmitri laughed, pulling a face of such mockery it reminded Lodge of DeNiro in his heyday.
Before he lost it.
‘You look like the king in your empire, Bertie,’ said WPC Spicer, pulling her chair up.
‘Old’ Spicer to the rest of the station, she blew over her morning machine coffee, two thin plastic beakers stacked together to stop her burning her fingers; then, barely audibly, sang a line of a song, something about a stepping stone?
Lodge, though, was pre-occupied, eyeing the contours of her regulation white blouse, her blonde bob, her taut face.
‘You look like you need another night to get over your birthday,’ he said.
‘Twenty-two was it?’
‘Twenn-ty three.’ Said the way an older person says such things, resulting in sounding ironically awestruck.
‘You saw your Russian off alright yesterday then?’
‘Ah, one of those legendary days that you remember when you’ve packed it all in,’ Lodge beamed. ‘Harris, the fortune teller, said to me afterwards: “I feel like Kofi Annan”.’
At five to nine, Lodge was called to front of house.
‘You rang, Sarge?’
‘Yes, Bertie. There’s a young woman here, looking for her husband. One for you.’
‘Glad to see my talents are finally being recognised.’
‘Let’s hope Mrs Vasiliev recognises them.’
‘Mrs Vasiliev? What the hell’s she doing in Newport?’
‘Strangely enough, Bertie, Deryn lives here. Pillgwenlly, born and bred.’
Completely the wrong way round.