Extract: Tooth & Nail by John B Spencer

Darren had six CDs loaded on the sound system in the boot of the XJ6, every one of them Elvis Presley, Country Hits playing now, ‘Green Grass of Home’, eat your heart out Tom Jones…

As I wake and look around me,
At the four grey walls that surround me…

Nosing the silver-grey bonnet into the Bush Green, a number 11, woman driving, letting him in, wonders would never fucking cease, Darren tapping the horn to acknowledge, other drivers looking round at the Jag, giving him the look, you got a problem, or what, The King, nothing over the top, every note for real, Darren right there with him in that prison cell, feeling all the pain, all the longing…

Still pissing down.
Blowers keeping the windscreen clear, wipers on full.
Six-thirty, Tuesday evening.

Darren amazed how many people there were missed the whole fucking point of the song… wondering about the execution, how they did it ­ lethal injection, cyanide pellets, the electric chair, The King strapped to the hot seat, flames bursting from beneath the straps, black smoke filling the chamber, the Pelvis going into convulsions, like he wanted to be up out of that seat one last time, right leg twitching, mind of its own, right hand gripping the mike stand, left hand flung out across the crowd of screaming kids…

Doing the dance.
Hayride, Louisiana.
Circa ’56.

Easing into the outside lane, next to the green, junction with Wood Lane and the Uxbridge Road up ahead, traffic hardly moving, Darren looking out over the Green, wondering where all the dossers went when it was coming down like this…

Green, green grass of home.
Shepherd’s Bush Green.
Thinking about Mary.
‘Minge quite hairy…’ that’s what they sang, back when they were still at school, knowing the song despite it had been a hit, the Tom Jones version, while Darren was still in nappies.

Mary…
Crying in the chapel.
Down on her knees praying as the prison governor threw the switch, dimmed the lights. Darren wanting to know the rest of the story, whether she ever got over it, married, settled down, had kids. Turning off the cd player as the track finished, thinking, Knowing women, probably spreading her fucking legs inside a fortnight. Picking up the mobile from the passenger seat, Reggie answering on the third ring, Darren saying, ‘Wonders will never cease.’ Reggie saying, ‘Darren.’
‘I’ve been trying to reach you all afternoon.’
‘Well, now you did.’
‘I’ve been giving it some thought… the other night.’
Reggie saying, ‘And?’
Darren touching the accelerator, coming up alongside a red Post Office van ­ mad fuckers, all of them ­ allowing the van to cut a path out ahead of him into the junction with Wood Lane, the Green still on his right, heading east, now, towards Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout, checking the mirror to get into the middle lane, avoid the tail-back of traffic doing a right at the end of the Green. Queues of people at the bus stops on the far side of the road, women with shopping, office workers still on the way home, standing in the rain. Bunch of black kids outside McDonald’s, shell-suits, hoods up, gobbing on the pavement. Chinese and Indian takeaways doing good business, everybody, apart from the black kids, in a hurry to get indoors, dry off, get stuck into Eastenders. Darren thinking, if the Mitchell brothers were light relief, what the fuck was the world coming to…
Saying to Reggie, ‘We need to talk some more.’
‘In the motor?’
‘Bush Green.’
Reggie saying, ‘This bloke rang me once, on his mobile. Mid-sentence went smack into the back of a Tesco Supermarket lorry… air-bag goes off, bloke screaming, that horrible grinding sound you get when two lumps of metal keep on coming at each other. Phone still on send, heard everything. Him groaning, sirens, fire brigade cutting him out with an acetylene torch, him screaming fit to wake the dead when the paramedics shifted him… fascinating, it was.’
‘I’m sure it was, Reggie.’
‘I rang his missus. She said the doctors did everything they could but, well, there you go.’
Then: ‘Eyes front at all times, am I right, Darren?’
‘You say so, Reggie.’
‘I do say so, Darren. Could have yourself a nasty accident.’
‘Chance would be a fine thing.’
Making the middle lane.
Seven hundred and eighty-three a month for the motor, plus fully comp’ insurance, three months behind, already, girl on the phone from Norton-Hamblin Financing every other day. ‘Did you receive our letter?’ – pronounced ‘lett-are’ – ‘… account in good ord-are… if you would ring me back on this numb-are.’ Alison and Darren falling about laughing, listening to the playback on the answer machine, too good to be true when she said, ‘Just ask for Patric-are.’ Patric-are Well-are, credit control department, Norton-Hamblin Finance. Lease, don’t buy, his accountant had advised him. What was the fucking point of tax deductible…
Deductible from what?
‘Or the Old Bill on your back… due care and attention.’
Darren, across Shepherd’s Bush Roundabout, into Holland Park Avenue, traffic solid all the way up the hill, wondering if he should call Kiren, tell her he was running late – how late would depend on Reggie – saying to Reggie, ‘I was heading in your direction.’
‘On the off-chance.’
‘I’m meeting Kiren. Chinese in Queensway.’
Mr Poon. Best wind-dried duck in London. Kiren always went for the Singapore Noodles. Liked picking up the fat tiger prawns with her fingers, licking her fingers afterwards.
‘Kiren? What happened to Zoë?’
‘I met Kiren, that’s what happened to Zoë.’
‘I rather liked Zoë.’
‘Give her a call, I’m sure she’d fall about laughing.’
‘You think so?’
‘I know so. Zoë likes it straight, and that’s something you can’t manage unless you’re hanging by the neck from the fucking ceiling.’
Darren had looked it up one time, after Reggie had told him, couldn’t believe anybody would want to do such a weirdo thing… paraphilia. Choke off the oxygen supply to the brain, orgasm like nothing you could imagine.
According to Reggie.
Darren had said, ‘I’m going to have to take your word for it on that one, Reggie,’ saying, now, ‘I find a space, I can be with you in ten minutes.’
‘Why the change of heart, Darren?’
‘Needs must…’
‘When the Devil drives?’
‘Something like that, Reggie. ‘
Reggie laughing.
‘Just glad I’m able to help out.’
Darren saying, ‘I’ll need some up-front.’
‘And you shall have it.’
‘Now… this evening?’
‘I don’t see why not… don’t forget, Darren, top bell. I’ll be listening out.’

Top bell.
Reggie’s place, five storey mid-Victorian terraced house in Stanley Crescent, overlooking the gardens… big rooms, rococo plasterwork, tall ceilings, tall enough for Reggie to hang himself by the neck until dead any time he wanted. Reggie, before he moved in, had had the place converted from five self-contained units, back to its original condition, kept the front door intercom system, five bells, five nameplates, grill to speak into, assure the tenant you weren’t a house-breaker, Jehovah Witness, bailiff come to serve a Notice of Distress and Inventory, Reggie keeping all the same names except the top one, changed that to R. Crystal. Reggie’s idea of a joke.
Wasn’t fooling anyone.
Expensive drapes in every window.
Pristine paintwork.
No pile of junk mail inside the front door.
Bicycles chained up by the basement steps.
Reggie breaking the connection. Darren, at the lights by Holland Park Station, indicating, turning left into Landsdowne Road, right into Ladbroke Road, looking for an empty bay, Nissan Bluebird pulling out from a space just ahead.
Luck be my lady.
Darren, parked up, out of the car, turning back to lock the doors, Jaguar giving him a farewell beep, flash of the hazards.
Walking fast.
Still pissing it down.
Back with Elvis Presley, the ‘Green Green Grass of Home’, head down, humming the tune.
The pain and longing in The King’s voice.
The regret.
Wondering if the electric chair was the same as hanging…
Going to your grave…
Come stains round your crutch?

Carol talking about the band she had seen last night, saying they were post-modernist. Duncan thinking, What wasn’t post-modernist these days? Bench-table overlooking the towpath, Kew Bridge up river, south-bound traffic not moving, visible above the parapet. Duncan drinking London Pride, straight glass.
Carol, Labatt Ice, no glass.
Carol saying, ‘On the surface they sound like any other light-weight pop band, but, there’s an underlying irony. It’s like they’ve assimilated the genre and now they’re taking the piss… and the lead singer, he’s drop-dead gorgeous.’
Duncan watching the swans.
A rowing eight, far bank, skulling, blades dripping water, symmetrical eddies in the wake of the craft, the water high, placid, on the turn.
Duncan not able to look her in the eye, feeling like a kid, saying, ‘What did you say they were called?’
Carol saying, ‘The Conflabs.’
Duncan, making a joke, saying, ‘The Flab Four?’
Carol saying, ‘There’s five of them… the bass player’s a girl.’
As if that made any difference to Duncan.
‘Comes from round here, Teddington, that’s why I writing them up.’
‘Did you do an interview?’
‘With the lead singer… totally out of his head, I’d have loved some of what he was on. He said they were all going for an Indian afterwards, them and their manager, asked me if I wanted to come.’
‘And, did you?’
‘Give me credit, he’s only twenty. Besides, he was too full of himself by far.’

Carol, twenty-six.
Six years, at that age, a lifetime.
Duncan, forty-nine, the lift home from Richmond to Chiswick, if Carol was still in the office, not out working on something, now routine, signifying nothing… this, the first time he had asked her if she wanted to stop off, have a drink by the river.
The weather now clear.
Still not warm for the time of the year.
Duncan had taken weeks to ask.
Saying, now, ‘I have a problem with post-modern… it seems to me that if modern is up-to-date, then post-modern must mean the future… pure semantics, I know.’
Carol saying, ‘It’s retro, but…’ thinking about it, then saying, ‘It’s like… taking something from the past, but investing it indelibly with the here and now, the retro aspect becomes a virtual reality… like the Bootleg Beatles are retro, Oasis are post-modern.’
‘You mean the way the breweries rip the guts out of a perfectly respectable pub, turn it into an Oirish theme pub, lousy acoustics, chairs you can’t sit on, shamrock in the top of your Guinness, ask the New Zealander behind the bar for a glass – not a pint – and he won’t know what the fuck you are talking but?’
Aware that Carol didn’t know the difference between a glass and a pint, either, despite she had a friend from university, living in Waterford with her boyfriend, Carol visited them, regularly. Duncan remembering what his friend had said, Allan, used to play chess once a week, go for a drink afterwards… left his wife and three children for a woman half his age, went skulking back after only three months.
‘It’s all the footnotes, having to explain everything gets you down after a while.’
Duncan adding, ‘Today’s special, lasagne and wholewheat bap roll.’
Carol laughing. Off the hook on the ‘glass.’ Saying, ‘You won’t believe this, but it’s the God’s honest truth&ldots; I was in this bar in Dungarvan, everybody said it was the place to go for fresh fish, chalk board over the bar said, Catch of the Day: Lasagne. Alice’s Michael said,’ adopting an accent, ‘And what kind of a net would you be using to catch that?’
Duncan saying, ‘Is that a post-modern Irish accent?’ Then: ‘Sounds like a real Irish pub, though.’
Carol saying, ‘You’re contradicting yourself there, somewhere.’
Duncan more concerned that he had fallen into the racial stereotype… years of conditioning, you dropped your guard for just one moment.
The Irish as thick bastards.
Angry with himself.
Carol saying, ‘No, seriously, what you said about the theme pub is exactly it… the pub is Irish, but not Irish… it’s a virtual Irish.’
‘And you’re not supposed to know the difference?’
‘Of course you are, otherwise it wouldn’t be post modern.’

District Line train crossing the railway bridge, heading towards Richmond. The water starting to move back down-river, the swans turning, holding their own against the current. Duncan, his glassempty, wondering if he should suggest another, wondering if he could say, ‘Let’s go on from here, have dinner, somewhere…’
Instead, checking his watch, saying, ‘It’s getting on, Lindsay will be wondering where I’ve got to.’
Carol laughing.
Saying, ‘She might think you’re with another woman.’
What did that mean?
Did it mean anything?
Carol saying, ‘I know this is personal, don’t answer if you don’t want to, but have you ever been unfaithful to Lindsay?’
The two of them standing, now, Duncan wishing that he had made a move, any move, covered her hand with his while they were sitting at the table…
Talking.
Still not asking her to dinner.
Saying, ‘I can’t say the thought has never been there.’

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About John B Spencer

Also by John B Spencer (published by The Do-Not Press)

Quake City
Perhaps She’ll Die
Stitch
Grief