when you came in, quick smart.’
‘He’s about as pommy as you are,’ I said. ‘His old man taught welding at Preston Tech.’
‘Wish my old man’d taught welding at Preston Tech,’ Stan said with controlled venom. ‘Then I wouldn’t be standin here till all hours listenin to old buggers fartin on about footie games sixty years ago.’
I rang Wootton from what Stan called his office, a midden of old bills, junk mail, newspapers, telephone directories. Under the telephone was a Carlton & United Breweries page-a-day diary. The year was 1954.
‘Mr Wootton has made a number of attempts to contact you,’ said Mrs Davenport. ‘Please wait while I see whether he’s free.’
‘Free, free, like a bird in a tree,’ I said. I don’t know why.
‘I beg your pardon?’ said Mrs Davenport, not startled.
‘It’s a line from an American poet, E. A. Presley.’
There was a silence of precise duration. It told me my flippancy had been noted. Then Wootton came on the line, querulous.
‘What’s the point of having an answering machine if you don’t plan to respond to messages? I even resorted to ringing that filthy hole you drink in.’
‘Even as we speak I am in that hole.’
‘Well, see if you can get out of it by Monday to do a small task for me.’
‘Cyril,’ I said, ‘do I detect a hint of the master-servant relationship creeping in here? Let’s start with a nice thank you for the parcel I dropped off on Thursday. And then we can talk about the possibility of future dealings.’
‘Thank you,’ he said ungratefully. ‘I notice that you remunerated yourself rather lavishly in excess of the agreed fee.’
‘The agreed fee didn’t cover uniform fetishists armed with dodgy guns. I explained that on the phone.’
‘Perfectly harmless little turd.’
‘There’s no such thing as an armed harmless little turd.’
We went on like this for a while. Then I went back to the bar, drank a beer with the lads, ate a toasted cheese sandwich crafted out of recycled sawdust and polyvinyl by the reluctant hands of Liz. I was at the door when Stan said, ‘Another bloke looking for you. Thursday, I think it was. Said he’d been round your office.’
‘Didn’t say. Didn’t ask. Said he’d come back.’
‘What’d he look like?’
Stan thought for a while, squinting slightly. ‘Short,’ he said. ‘Dangerous.’
‘That’s half the people I know.’
I went home. The flat smelled of musty books. It took me back to the start of my legal career, searching through document boxes stacked like tin coffins in a crypt. I put my bag in the bedroom and opened the sitting room windows. The cold came in like a presence. At the end of the lane cars flicked by. The rain held in the streetlight’s cone seemed to rise from the sharkskin pavement.
I made a drink of whisky, ice and tap water and slumped on the sofa beside the telephone. In the gloom, the little red light on the answering machine blinked nervously. I went
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