Moggerhanger, p.17
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       Moggerhanger, p.17

           Alan Sillitoe
 

  Mabel put a salver of breakfast between us. “Come on, Kenny,” I said, “set to.”

  He needed no second telling. “Who’s the broad?”

  “Well, she is, rather. How observant of you. But show some respect. She’s the person who keeps me alive. Her name is Mrs Drudge-Perkins.”

  She spread a napkin over my knees.

  “Darling,” I said to her, “the delicious odour of bacon is becoming overwhelmed by the stench of burning bread. Only don’t throw a bucket of water over it as you did the last burnt offering. I know carbon is supposed to be good for the stomach, but it’s a sin to waste good bread.”

  She’d already gone. “How’s my friend Michael Cullen faring under the flatulent influence of Moggerhanger?”

  “You talk just like somebody in a Sidney Blood book,” he said through his mouthful. “I’ll never forget today. I’m having breakfast with the great Sidney Blood! Well, Michael’s gone to Greece, in one of Lord Moggerhanger’s Rolls Royces. But it’s like this, Sidney, if I was to tell you more than that and the boss got to know about it I’d lose three of my fingers.”

  “My dear fellow, if you don’t tell me”—I poured more coffee, and went on in the manner of a Sidney Blood to emphasize my point—“the razor that cut me up this morning is itching to have a go at someone else. Sidney Blood’s razor is no idle instrument. It likes to be gainfully employed all the time. My head hardly blunted it, if you catch my meaning. Michael is a family relation, so I’m naturally interested in his whereabouts.”

  “Just like Sidney Blood again. I can’t believe it.”

  “Straight out of my latest effort.”

  He rolled a sheet of Harrod’s best smoked streaky onto the fork, and put it into his mouth. “You’re writing one now?”

  “It’s on my desk at this very moment. But any information you care to impart about Michael will go no further than this apartment.”

  He looked at me with barely controlled pig-eye cunning: “You won’t put it in a book?”

  My laugh cracked a patch of dried blood on my skull. “Sidney is very particular where he gets his copy. It had to come out of his head, red hot, as it’s doing now.” A rub at the skull, which made little difference to the ache, decided me to give Mrs Drudge an extra kick up the posterior so that she would never forget her senseless prank. “Sidney Blood insists on making his imagination work. Anyway, he most often sets his stories in the Big Apple or LA. Quite a bit of material has already poured out this morning. Mrs Drudge-Perkins stands over me with a bull whip to keep my Sidney Bloods going. Now you know how I do so many.”

  He winked. “A bit of a terror, is she?”

  “You’ve no idea.”

  “Keeps you at it. That’s good. I’ve read every Sidney Blood you’ve ever wrote, some of ’em five times.”

  “Now you know the process.” I pointed to my forehead, the finger coming back bloodstained. “It’s all in here. So you can tell me about this geezer Cullen. He’s always telling me to stop writing Sidney Blood books, and I sometimes think he’s right. He’s very persuasive.”

  “The cunt! Oh, I’m sorry, Mrs Drudge”—she had come in with marmalade and fresh toast. “Forget me language, didn’t I? My mum threatened to wash me mouth out with soap only last week.”

  Mabel smiled at her most Chelsea. “You’re forgiven, Mr Dukes.”

  He took a thumb-scoop of marmalade to smear his toast. “Ain’t she lovely?”

  Mabel blushed, and I could see that she was taken with him, so I snapped more harshly: “Bring the hackleberry jam. You know I abominate marmalade.” What a revenge it would be to throw her into the arms of Kenny Dukes. It would serve her so right the notion made me feel faint. “She fancies you,” I said to him.

  He blushed as much as his freckled visage could show. “You think so?”

  “I’ve never seen her so impressed. She can be a handful, mind you.” She came back with my favourite preserve. “Can’t you, darling?”

  “Can’t what, my love?”

  “Be a handful. You see these towels around my head, Kenny? She hit me with a rusty spare tap when I got out of bed this morning—and for no reason at all.”

  “I’ll never forgive myself.” She went weeping back to the kitchen. “I thought I was being affectionate.”

  “She did that?” Kenny said. “She hit you? Would she do that to me? My mum would be ever so glad if she did. She always says I deserve to have my head kicked in.”

  I thought the moment had come to go back to the only matter which interested me. “And what happened to Michael Cullen?”

  “That berk? I’ll tell you one thing, he won’t be coming back in a hurry to tell you to stop writing Sidney Bloods. Lord Moggerhanger’s set him up proper. As soon as the Roller was out of the yard me and the lads fell about laughing. Parkhurst—that’s Lord Moggerhanger’s bone idle son, who’s called Parkhurst because he’s done bird in that place—well, he told us what Michael was in for. He shouldn’t have, but he hates his old man because he won’t pay his gambling debts. Michael’s gone to Greece to do the hardest pick up job of all. Moggerhanger thinks the Green Toe Gang will get onto him, and it’ll stop them chasing Jericho Jim and Fred Pincher, who’ve gone to Cadiz to pick up a load of snuff from the Canary Islands. I’d be surprised if you see anymore of Michael Cullen. You can have a terrible accident, the way he’s gone. He gets too big for his effing boots, though. And to think he wants you to stop writing Sidney Bloods.”

  “But why did they have to send Cullen?”

  “Looks real, don’t it? Showed Moggerhanger meant business. Any old fool at the wheel, and the Green Toe Gang wouldn’t bother. They must have tracked him from the Channel. A little hint, of course. There’s no flies on Lord Moggerhanger. If there was he wouldn’t be a lord, would he?”

  I gave another wipe at the place where my blood itched. “This is all pukka gen?”

  “I remembered it, didn’t I? I’m not stupid.”

  I put an arm around his shoulders. “My dear chap, Sidney Blood looks on you with such favour that he will show you into the sanctum where he actually writes the books you like so much. If you would kindly pull the remains of breakfast from your chin, and come with me, I’ll fulfil one of your deepest wishes.”

  Poor Kenilworth followed me like the vile dog he was. “You can even sit in the armchair in which I think up the juiciest plots.” I went to my desk, to sort a few sheets, and wrote a hurried paragraph. “This is the latest. I’m thinking of calling it ‘Blood Brings Home the Bacon.’ What do you think of that for a title?”

  He persuaded his eyes away from playing marbles with each other. “Smashing, Sidney.”

  “That’s all right, then. If as assiduous and knowing a fan as yourself likes it, then so do I. Therefore, relax, old chap, and allow me to read you a line or two, something I’ve never done for anyone, not even for Michael Cullen:

  “Sidney Blood always ran upstairs when on a job, but was careful to walk down slowly. He knew danger when he saw it. Running up, you caught your enemy at a disadvantage, and walking down you could enjoy the satisfaction of having cut him up without the peril of tripping on a ragged carpet. In any case, witnesses were more likely to remember a running man than one calmly walking. Lighting a cigarette, he noticed blood on his fingernails …’ How does that strike you?”

  “Smashin’. I wish I could hear it all.”

  “That would take another week.” I reached into a drawer. “Let me make you a present of a signed copy.”

  “You mean it? My mum will be ever so proud when I show it her. She loves your books as well. Nick’s ’em from the library, then keeps ’em on the parlour table with a Bible on top.”

  I scribbled: ‘Best Wishes from Sidney Blood, to my most fervent fan Kenny Dukes.’ My brain was working feverishly, as Blood might say, on something more important. “Can you tell me whe
n Michael Cullen left? He was coming for tea this afternoon, and if he’s away I can work on Sidney Blood instead.”

  His stereoscopic arm reached for the book. “He left yesterday. Put his car on the train to Milan, didn’t he? Should be in Jugoslavia by now, unless the GTGs got him in Italy.”

  A padded envelope from the waist basket was good enough to put his book in. “If an old lady recognises it on the street she might take offence, and snatch if from you to burn in her stove.”

  “I’d like to see her try.” With a hideous grin he took a knuckleduster from his pocket, polished it with halitosis breath, and buffed it up on his jacket sleeve. “I’d land her a real knuckle sandwich, wouldn’t I? I like to make my day now and again.”

  He didn’t know that Chelsea women would smack him to the pavement in a trice and send a spiked heel into each eye. How was it, I wondered, that a walking arsenal such as him was allowed to roam without let or hindrance, while someone like me could be sent to the lock-up for not paying income tax? “And now I must ask you to leave, because priority number one is that I get on with the novel of which you’ve just heard an immortal part. The fact is, Kenny, another chap writes Sidney Bloods, though he has no right to. He’s the bane of my life, and only does it to spite me.”

  Mabel was in the living room scooping up the breakfast detritus. “Who is he?” tinkled from Kenny’s lips.

  “A chap called Delphick, a performance poet who pushes a pram with a panda on top up and down between here and Yorkshire.

  “Next time I see him I’ll drive him off the hard shoulder. I’ll break his fingers, then he’ll have to write with his toes. Slow him down a bit, Sidney. You can rely on me.”

  “You mustn’t do that. All’s fair in love and writing.” His arm came towards me for a farewell handshake. “Not too firm, or I shan’t be able to write, either.”

  He grinned. “We don’t want that, do we, Sidney?”

  Closing the door, I rubbed my hands in anticipation of taking Mrs Drudge-Perkins to task, giving her a dressing down, talking to her in no uncertain terms, having it out with her with regard to our unfinished business. My head was throbbing again now that no one was here to amuse me.

  The front door was stout and thick, but through it I heard Kenny Dukes call out, as if to some blameless individual making a way upstairs: “Who are you, fuckface?” to which the bark of a somewhat military response was: “No nonsense from you, or I’ll bundle you in the lift and cut the cable so that you’ll fall fifty feet to a timely death.”

  The grill clashed open, and Kenny Dukes boarded the lift for the descent, so I went into the living room, to open another bottle of brandy, and ponder on what could be done for Michael Cullen. He may be a bastard as far as I was concerned but I didn’t want to see him up excrement’s creek without a paddle, as the roughs in my platoon used to say, when I was close to getting them into exactly that situation.

  But first I had to settle the score with Mabel. A pleasure was all the more piquant for having been deferred, though at the same time it shouldn’t be allowed to wait too long. Her hands were rattling dishes in the sink, and on hearing me come in she turned round: “No, Gilbert, don’t. Oh please don’t. It wasn’t my fault. I didn’t mean it.”

  It must have been her lucky day, because the door bell rang again, long and loud, as if whoever leaned on it would continue to do so till he fell down and the undertakers had to be called. Everything was conspiring to stop me writing, but the bell, which always rang for me alone, in spite of what Donne said, had to be answered, since the period between its noise and a normal opening of the door wouldn’t allow sufficient time for me to give Mabel the drubbing I’d intended. Nevertheless, I would tell whoever it was that if it was me they wanted I no longer lived here.

  “Good morning, Major Blaskin. I hope you remember me.”

  “I might, but who the hell are you? Are you from the income tax headquarters? Or did a publisher send you for a manuscript I owe them?”

  “Nothing like that, sir. I’m an ex-soldier, Sergeant William Straw, late Sherwood Foresters. I saw service in the War. You were good enough to hide me in your roofspace three years ago, when all the gangs in London were after my guts.” He stood in the gloom of the hall. “If you’ll excuse me saying so, Major, you look as if you’ve been in a bit of a war yourself. You’re covered in blood.”

  “Am I?” I stepped back to face the mirror. “So I am. Just a little tiff with my girlfriend.”

  “I hope you gave her a friendly one back, sir.”

  He was smart, lean, short-haired and erect, a six footer who had invited himself, I now recalled, to hide in the rafters above the flat, until I discovered him one evening in the kitchen consuming my food supplies like Brunel’s soil-cutting machine boring a tunnel under the Thames, smoking one of my best cigars like a Sheffield chimney, and quaffing my wine like water, which it certainly wasn’t.

  He smiled. “Is that ravenous dog Dismal still inside? I wouldn’t like him to shred my turn ups. It’s my only pair of good trousers at the moment.”

  “What is it you want?”

  “Well, sir, let’s put it like this: I’m down on my luck, and Michael said if ever I got to that state I could always call on you to give a glad hand to an ex-soldier.”

  “Why don’t you ask him to help?”

  “I did, sir, but his lady-doctor wife informed me he’d gone to Greece.”

  “You’d better come in.”

  He draped his mildewed raincoat on a hanger. “I smell bacon. Is there any left? It’s amazing how hungry you get when you’re poor.”

  Mabel came from the kitchen, perhaps to fawn over whoever had saved her from unpleasant chastisement. All I could do was tell her to make the same sort of breakfast as for Kenny Dukes, and bring more coffee for me.

  “You’re a real gentleman,” Straw said.

  I was glad he thought so, because I had plans that wouldn’t bear mentioning till food had made him truly grateful. I might be a master of invective, and the sort of writer who gives other writers a bad name (so that they would leave me alone) but I could spin plots when necessary with an alacrity which astounded even me.

  “What was that tripehound Kenny Dukes doing here, sir?”

  “He’s an admirer of Sidney Blood novels, and wanted one of them signed.”

  “I didn’t know he could read, sir.”

  “He hardly needs to, with that sort of trash.”

  “He’s a villain, sir.” He shook half the cornflakes into a dish. “Everybody’s terrified of him in Soho. He looks after Moggerhanger’s strip clubs and gambling establishments. But I never take any lip from scum like that. He knows better than to get on the wrong side of me. I sent him packing just then.” He looked up from the table, and called on Mabel for more toast.

  It was a pleasure to watch him eat, after Kenny Dukes’ crude manners, but Kenny Dukes hadn’t been a soldier, and never in a sergeants’ mess, not even as a waiter. “Have you ever been to Greece, Sergeant Straw?”

  “I’ve been all over the Middle East, sir, but not exactly there. If you’re thinking of going for your holidays I can caretake the flat while you’re away.”

  When he had finished dabbing up the yoke of two eggs I refilled his coffee cup, and offered a cigarette. “Tell me. Straw, how fond are you of Michael Cullen?”

  “Fond, sir?” He nonchalantly exchanged the cigarette for a cigar from my open box, and lit it with almost as much pleasure as I did mine. “Let me put it this way: Michael and me are blood brothers. Why do you want to know?”

  “Because to say he’s in danger might be something of an understatement.”

  “You’d better tell me about it, then, because if anything happened to him I’d be so alone in the world I wouldn’t want to stay in it. Therefore I’d have to kill everybody else in the world to avenge him. We’ve known each other for fifteen yea
rs, and been in more scrapes together than I’ve got toes. We always look after each other. United we stand, divided we fall, just like in the regiment.”

  “Your sentiments couldn’t be better, Sergeant Straw.” I retailed the intelligence extracted from Kenny Dukes, during which recitation Straw finished his main course and went back to the cornflakes for dessert. He emptied the milk jug over them that Mabel had foolishly left on the table, and spilled in the rest of the sugar. Here was a man I could trust with my life—or anyone else’s—because he ate like a carrion crow and never put on weight. “So you see why I’m worried, and why something has to be done.”

  “I’m glad I called, then. It seems like Michael’s got himself tangled in a typical Moggerhanger set-up. Mogg did that to him once before, and Michael only got out of it by a bit of Irish luck, as well as a helping hand from yours truly sitting providentially before you.”

  “Now you know why I’m sending you on a special mission to Greece.”

  I expected argument, even protests, and was pleased at getting none. Knowing I was dealing with someone of sound worth, I shook his hand. “You’re a good man, Straw.”

  “I’ll go anywhere in the world you care to post me, sir, but I can’t go to Greece in these clothes. I might meet a nice young woman while I’m there, and then where would I be?”

  “You’ll meet no such person,” I said sternly. “Red light districts will be strictly out of bounds. No philandering of any sort. I’ll draw up a plan of operations, and you’ll stick to it. As for clothes, choose one of my dozen suits from the wardrobe. We’re a similar build, and though I’m not quite as thin as you I expect you’ll fill out in a remarkably short time with the food you seem set to eat from now on. I’ll have to pay for your messing arrangements, of course, but any tips will come out of your own pocket.”

 
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