20 January 2018

from THE GREY AREA: The Old Dick

I've abandoned this blog for over a year, but ...

My latest novel, The Grey Area, has been completed for a few months now. I'd hoped Unthank Books, the publishers of Country Life, would take it on, but it appears they are no longer commissioning new single-author books, although they have not said so publicly. Looks like the same story elsewhere in independent publishing. Very gloomy. Anyway, while I investigate other ways of publishing this book, which I'm very happy with, I'm going to post extracts here.

This first one you can also find in the latest, terrific issue of Golden Handcuffs Review, which is my novel's first appearance of any sort in actual print on actual paper. But check out that issue also for the David Antin feature, for poems by Maurice Scully and Alice Notley, the latest instalment of Peter Quartermain's memoir, and, may I modestly add, my own appreciation of the late, great David Bromige. I am also honoured to be sharing page space with the legendary Joseph McElroy. And there's a lot else.


from The Grey Area

The tide was in at Deadmans Beach, and the wind was up. The fishing fleet was ranged on the banks of shingle being encroached by rushing and receding waves: an impressive if heterogeneous collection of chiefly traditionally clinker-built vessels (but some of fibreglass), both larger trawlers and also punts, that’s to say, undecked boats, all with diesel engines, sitting on their greased hardwood blocks or planks, awaiting favourable conditions. Linseed oil dully gleamed and colours faded against the whitening sky. Winch engines and their cables, some apparently half consumed by corrosion, also lay dormant, and among them the detritus of a fishing beach: walls and labyrinths of creels, plastic and wooden boxes or their fragments, piles of greasy nets. Two or three men wandered between the huts; one called briefly to another – but this was all the human life that could be observed. A crushed, stained white latex glove and a dirty, crumpled T-shirt with the Superman logo that had evidently been employed as a rag lay discarded on the intervening gravel. Used plastic bottles were scattered here and there. On the casing of a winch, a hand-painted notice in white lettering on a black ground: KEEP OFF. On the shingle banks, eviscerated fish corpses and emptied skulls stank and were disdained by the ragged flocks of gulls, terns and plovers that edged the moving foam. From the sterns of various boats fluttered black flags on tall poles. Some vessels had names painted on their bows or sterns, for example: Moonshine, Candice Marie, Zelda, The Brothers Grim, David Bowie, Blackbeard, Our Dot & Danny, Little Mayflower, King Hell, Safe Return. Their registration numbers were prominently displayed in most cases, and the following were noted: DB11, DB16 (etc, all the way up to…) DB590 – DB signifying that the boats were registered in the port of Deadmans Beach. All in all, including small row boats and others whose registration numbers were obscured or not present, a total of twenty-eight vessels were counted.
      A huge volume of water appeared to be driven repeatedly and relentlessly by the strong breeze – verging on gale – onto the beach. The line of undulations could be tracked like a moving graph against the concrete groyne that marked the south-western boundary of the fishing beach, in the lee of which was suddenly observed a shining black creature – at first glance a seal, but quickly revealed to be a solitary surfer in black wetsuit, crouching, waiting for the right wave to arrive. And so this mysterious being watched the approach of a tall one with rippling white foam at its rim; the foam starting to glitter, for the sun only then began to make its presence felt through the white banks of cloud, the shoreward wall of the wave now being in shadow, and darkening further as it rose.
But the wave seemed to pause. And at the last possible moment the surfer took advantage, and, embracing his electric blue board tightly as one would a newly refound lover, launched himself into the van of the approaching current that swept him inexorably shoreward, showing only a flash of his orange flippers, before it broke over him in a white explosion. Then just as the figure seemed lost, he reappeared in the midst of the retreating water, struck out and began to swim back where he’d come from, following the flowback to the lee of the groyne, where he would turn, shelter and repeat the experience.


The fishing community’s favourite hostelry, enquiries quickly established, was the Richard the Lionheart Inn.
      Set back from the front and faced by the fishermen’s tar-black wooden sheds that flank the shingle beach, it presented as an ancient inn that had seen better days and had somehow survived misjudged attempts at modernisation on the cheap: a tiled roof, tall chimneys, with weatherboarding at the front and hanging tiles on the sides filling the spaces between modern UPVC windows. Vertical rust-streaks down the wall bearded the cast iron brackets for hanging baskets that bore no blooms at this time of year. Pasted inside the front windows were posters for local bands: Monday nights were blues nights, Saturday nights featured a wider variety of genres, including a psychedelic option. Entry to the bar was via a short flight of stone steps flanked by railings.
      Fluttering on high: the red-on-white cross, emblem of the Crusaders.
      The south-westerly was beginning to pump up seriously now, and with it came flecks of rain, so entering the pub was a welcome relief, the more so as ale from a respected regional brewery was advertised. The interior was badly lit. The only other customers, seated on high stools at opposite ends of the long bar, were an elderly man with hair in long white ringlets descending to his shoulders, wearing a black jacket, khaki cargo pants and impeccably white trainers, slowly supping a pint; and an overweight woman, who was engaged in shouting at the barman. She too wore white trainers, but quite scuffed, and black trousers, and her anorak was open to reveal a pink poodle on her sweater. She cradled a glass of something with lemon in it.
      The low ceiling, crisscrossed by beams, featured giant crabs and other marine creatures trapped there by netting; paddles, flags and lifebelts decorated the walls, also a dartboard, and a noticeboard pinned with photographs and advertisements for forthcoming events. At the far end, next to the toilets, a much scrubbed blackboard advertised the dishes du jour. These included soup, the idea of which appealed.
      So what, then, was the soup of the day?
      Vegetable.
      A deal was struck with the young, monosyllabic barman: soup and a pint, a table in the corner claimed.
      Giles, cried the lady in the poodle sweater, addressing the ringleted elder from her end of the bar.
      Closer observation now revealed that this snowy-haired gentleman was wearing makeup and eyeliner, and his fingernails were polished in a fetching shade of teal. What’s that, my dear? he said.
      Have you finished planning your funeral?
      As a matter of fact, yes, Dodie, if you really want to know.
      You going for burial at sea?
      (Giles turned to our corner to acknowledge the presence of the outside world in this enclave.)
Highly irregular, of course. (Palm vertical on the side of his mouth, he continued in a stage whisper with a wink for our benefit:) Mum’s the word.
      So you going to be dumped over the side, then?
      Dodie, there will be more to it than that. You make me sound like an illegal catch.
      I always thought you were! And Dodie, spectacles glinting, laughed uproariously at her own witticism.
      The padre has agreed to be involved, just between us, you understand. There’ll be a ceremony, of sorts. Prayers will be said. I am a man of faith, you know.
      I knew you were, Giles, said Dodie, you believe in God, don’t ya.
      I prefer to speak about the Author of everything in this world, both seen and unseen.
      But you believe in Him.
      I don’t know so much about that, but I trust that He believes in us. You understand what I’m saying?
      You’re a one, Giles.
      If the Author doesn’t believe in us, who else is going to?
      I dunno.
      The Author of all things knows where we’re going.
      And He believes in us?
      It could be a She, conceded Giles.
      Maybe He or She hasn’t got a clue, was the poodle lady’s suggestion.
      Well, you’ve got to trust they do. It’s trust more than belief, you know what I mean? That’s what you call faith.
      And you think you’re going to Heaven?
      We are, said Giles solemnly, already living in Paradise.
      Could’ve fooled me, said the poodle lady.
      Deadmans Beach. Every morning when the light comes up here in Deadmans Beach I give thanks for another day that’s been given me. It is fucking Paradise, is it not, excuse my language, mister.
      (He received an assurance from our quarter that no offence was taken at bad language.)
      Yeah, it is nice here, admitted Dodie. I wouldn’t live nowhere else now.
      We all drank.
      Are you down from London, then? inquired Giles of us.
      In a manner of speaking. And you?
      Born and bred in Deadmans Beach, myself. Proud of it. She’s from London, she’s a bloody DFL, he added, pointing with his pint mug at Dodie, who burst into another loud cackle of laughter.
      I’ve only been here thirty years, Giles!
      You’ve served your apprenticeship then.
      I’ll say. And don’t call me she. You’re a very rude man, Giles, I don’t care if God believes in you or not, it’s a fact. Me old man it was (Dodie went on for our benefit), who brought me here when we got married. He was in the fishing trade all his life. But he passed on, what is it, two year ago.
      We expressed our sorrow at her loss, and there was a brief silence to mark it.
      You down on business then, or holiday-making or what? continued Giles politely.
      Our assurance that there was no holiday-making involved met with general approval.
      A private investigator? Blimey, that’s something new, ain’t it, Dodie? We haven’t had one of them down here before. But you’re not with the police then?
      By no means. And your secret is safe.
      Secret?
      The burial at sea.
      It was Giles’ turn to laugh, which he did quite lustily.
      Of course, scattering ashes at sea is perfectly legal, we pointed out. But an intact, unburnt body, that’s quite a different matter.
      You are correct, sir, it is against the law, but it happens all the time in the fishing community, explained Giles. Quite regularly you get a church funeral, somebody local, and the bearers may notice the casket is unusually light. You follow my drift? Everybody knows what that means.
      The body is not there?
      Exactly. The real funeral occurs under cover of darkness. Boat pulls out to sea as per usual a day or so later, when the tide and weather conditions are right – maybe more than one boat, depends on how many mourners, you see. Out a couple of miles, then … well, I don’t need to spell it out.
      Understood.
      It’s important to us. Well, I was in the fishing for many years. Can’t say I chose it, but I was brought up to it, like. It’s a hard life, but it’s still in my blood, even though I’ve been retired for longer than I care to remember. And so I want to go back to the bosom of the sea when my time comes.
      It seemed an apt moment to bring up, discreetly, the subject of our investigation.
Edith Watkins? Giles frowned into his drink.
      I remember her, volunteered Dodie. Lady what disappeared.
      She wasn’t the one who – ?
      She used to go for her walks along here, Giles, you remember, she talked to everybody? Edie, that’s what we called her. Little Edie.
      Did she come into the pub?
      Not often. I seen her in here with a cup of coffee sometimes. Maybe once or twice. I don’t think she drank.
      She wasn’t the one who wangled herself a trip on a fishing boat, was that the one, Dodie?
      That is the one, Giles, that was, what, ten or twenty year ago, she was a brave lady. Getting on even then, a bit mad, you know, but anyway she disappeared last year, it was on the news. Come on, you must remember?
      Yes, I recall Little Edie now. Haven’t seen her for … ooh, donkey’s years. So is she dead?
      The police, we explained, had not been able to determine this, and looked unlikely to, but it seemed that her last journey might have involved a visit to the waterfront.
      So what do you think, she might have stowed away on a boat and fallen off the side? exclaimed Dodie with great excitement.
      It was necessary to reassure the pair that this was not a leading theory, and that the task at hand was simply to establish her movements on the last day she had been seen alive. Neither, however, could recall when precisely they had last seen her. Nor could they remember any police inquiries last year, and the name of DCI Green meant nothing to them.
      Who was it, Giles demanded of Dodie, who took her out on that fishing trip a few years ago, was it old Gallop, you know, Doc Gallop? I have a feeling now it was.
      Yes, that’s right, old Doc, bless him.
      Would it be possible to speak to Mr Gallop? was our inquiry.
      You’d have a job, said Giles.
      Why so?
      He died.
      Buried at sea?
      Who knows? Don’t ask, don’t tell.
      But his son still runs the same boat, said Dodie, he’ll have known her better than us. Darren Gallop, he’s the president of the Fishermen’s Association now.
      So he should be easy to contact?
      Comes in here a lot, said Giles. Partial to a pint in the old Dick, is the younger Gallop. Very eminent man these days, though. The Jumpy Mary, that’s his boat. You’ll find him in the book, or just call in here again. He’ll be around anyway, nobody’s going out fishing in this weather.
      And as he drained his pint mug the fingernails flashed briefly like blue jewels.
      How was your soup, sir? was everything all right? asked the quiet young barman, who had suddenly appeared on this side of the counter with a wiping cloth.
      He was reassured as to the quality of both the fare and the service.
      Dodie stood down from the bar, zipped up her anorak, concealing the pink poodle from view.
      Where you going now, my love? asked Giles.
      Never you mind. Nice meeting you, mister.
      And you.
      I am going out for A Fag – should anyone inquire.
      Ooh, lovely, my dear, I’m sure.
      I didn’t mean you, Giles. See ya.
      Filthy habit, commented Giles when she’d gone. As filthy as the weather.
      He motioned to the barman for another pint. We attempted to pay for this, but he would not hear of it.

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