Authors: Jonathan Gash
This story is humbly dedicated to the memory of the ancient
Chinese patron saints Liu Chin-tin and
, who protect from poverty any scribbler who
dedicates a tale in their memory.
A story for Ian
, Richard and
Yvonne, Susan. And the Coven for kindness and help.
This story begins where I'm making love to an ancient Chinese
vase, on gangster's orders, watched by eleven point two million viewers. But
first, how to sell stolen hankies, from poverty, in the rain.
By evening the crowds of shoppers had thinned. The wet snuffed
daylight off the Lion Walk spire, leaving me on the glistening square while
women battled pushchairs into the rain. Those old Victorian lamps would have
imbued the scene with a romantic opalescence. As it was, our town council now
brittle us to death with a neon glare that hurts your eyes. Daft, like
everything modem. I'm an antique dealer so should know.
"Genuine Irish linen hankies," I warbled. People hurtled
past. "Hankies. Genuine Lancashire," I tried. Prams zoomed. Where has
compassion gone? I honestly wish people would reform. I'll even reform myself
when I can get a minute.
"What's this tramp cost, Mel, dear?"
Just my luck. I groaned aloud. Sandy was there, smiling wickedly
with Mel, his morose friend. Sandy carried a rotating silver umbrella. Bells
dangled from each spoke, the
interior shedding a roseate glow on his magenta eyelashes. He suddenly
! It's not a tramp! It's
"Push off, Sandy," I said. It's only friends who
embarrass, never enemies. Ever noticed that?
"How much are your rags, Lovejoy?" Sandy prodded them
with a finger. Cerise and ivory gloves, I observed, each digit with an external
"Six for a quid, Sandy." I hated the hope in my voice.
"Don't, Sandy," Mel said. "They'll be stolen."
"Seven." I wouldn't grovel, but my voice went,
They moved away, Sandy's high heels clacking. Today's motif was a
miniver fur soprano cape. He looked ridiculous. I thought, cop this, and called,
"Sandy. Your handbag's horrible." It was a fluorescent yellow
He halted, stricken, then burst into tears and ran. Mel yelled,
"There. Lovejoy! See what you've done!"
"Sorry," I shouted after the weird pair. "Only
Jo was by the bread shop. She looked as jubilant as I felt, but
drier. "How's it g-g-g-going, Lovejoy?" she said, shivering as a gust
caught her legs.
"Great, Jo. They're genuine silk, see?"
She crossed over. "You've only s-s-sold four. I saw."
"Five," I said indignantly. "Well, nearly
five." Milking the public's finer feelings is bottling fog.
"Nearly five's f-f-f-four, Lovejoy. Cuppa char?"
Jo's a good lass. Her stutter's a pity. Probably our town's best
prostitute, though opinions vary. No statistician's yet applied himself to the
problem. Should be a good Ph.D. in that for some willing student. Jo's been
very good to me off and on. And I've nearly been good to her.
"Here, Jo," I said. "How much is cat food?"
She came over, hopefully doing her walk, but our football team had
lost three-nil and the passing lads were all
"Is that y-y-y-yours, Lovejoy? F-f-f-feed it scraps."
Toffee had adopted me two days ago. I'd kept it between my ankles
for shelter since the drizzle started. It's black, with a caramel chin. I'd had
hell of a row with the driver on the village bus, who wanted me to pay. For a
cat. The fascist swine. I ask you.
"Scraps have run out." I felt myself go red.
"C-c-c-come on. I can't s-s-s-stand all this pathos."
She led the way. I said a come on to Toffee, and we made Woody's caff without
loss of life, though the traffic tried.
Woody's is a nosh bar in our town's Arcade. The grub is famed
among East Anglia's few survivors for running contrary to all known dietary
wisdoms. Woody's Dining Emporium is the home of cholesterol, the oppidum of
saturated fats. The dense fog starts corrosion where acid rain leaves off. Even
the furniture looks riddled with additives. Among it all was Woody, coughing
fag ash indiscriminately into custard, chips, sizzling bacon.
A cheer of derision rose as we entered. Antique dealers, using the
term loosely, gather here.
"Wotcher, Lovejoy. How's business?"
"Fine, Podge." We found a table, Jo settling with a
sigh. Podge Howarth is a tiny ginger-haired bloke into Georgian furniture. I
like him, though he's barmy. He actually built his own motor car, one of these
tiny hatchbacks that expands into a hostelry by judicious tinkering.
Two other blokes were with Podge, just leaving. I said hello with
a nod. Ollie Hennessey's a neat compact individual who runs a supermarket;
collects Civil War weaponry. He gives me day jobs at peak times like Christmas
and August holidays. Me and schoolchildren restock his supermarket's shelves,
all illegal labor, of course. Clipper, who was with him, was a surprise because
I didn't know they were friends. Clipper's a big beefy man, as thick as he is
tall. He's a phony gypsy, lives in caravans with a team of roughs. They work
housing estates doing resprays of dubious motor cars. As always, Clipper
carried a bag that clinked. We all smiled knowingly. Tell you more about this
A large woolly man whaling into a Woody's fry-up gave a laugh at
my name, mouth open so we could all admire his masticated calories.
"Lovejoy!" he roared, face going puce. "What a name!"
My weak grin encouraged him, because he made another couple of
remarks as Jo ordered for us. She told Woody she wanted some milk in a saucer
and some fish for Toffee. She's really nice. Embarrassed, I muttered that I'd
"Don't be silly, Lovejoy," she scolded. "What's the
sense of getting soaked when you could be having a warm drink?"
I put my tray of sodden handkerchiefs under my chair. Toffee sat
between my feet. I'd never had a cat before and wondered, was this a unique
moggie, or your run-of-the-mill standard model?
"Here, Jo," I said, my voice low so Toffee wouldn't
hear. "In confidence. This cat. What, er. . . ?"
"F-f-female," she said. "S-s-s-stray, I should
"Stray?" I said indignantly. "It's a
"It's coming to something!" The woolly geezer was
enraged because nobody had laughed with him. They knew better. Lily, a rather
sad antique dealer on East Hill given to disastrous love affairs, even tried to
shush him with warning glances. She was sitting opposite—with?—him. "A street
beggar, a whore, and an animal." He glared at us, a professional glarer if
ever there was one.
"Horses are thoroughbreds, Lovejoy. Cats are pedigree."
"It came in when I put the bird grub out," I told Jo.
"It won't eat fried bread."
"Is this allowed?" the bloke was going on. "What
sort of establishment are you running here. . . ?" Etcetera, etcetera.
Jo had gone pale. We tried to keep up our conversation but the
. It finally happened when
Erica fetched over our grub. She always ruffles my hair to annoy, but she
didn't this time. She put down a plate of chips, egg, and beans for me, and
"Woody's boned a bit of haddock, Lovejoy."
The bloke spluttered. "That whore's cat gets better
Life is odd, sometimes. Even the same bit of life's different when
looked at from behind different people's eyes. In theory, you'd think it to be
all the same quality of material. Like, I can take abuse months at a time. In
fact I do. I've been scathed by experts, so abuse is snow off a duck to me. I'd
hardly noticed what he was on about until I saw Jo fumble trying to slip me a
note underneath the table.
"Eh?" I said. My mouth was already full. I'd waded into
the grub. "What's up, love?"
"I've j-j-j-just r-r-r-remembered s-s-s-something,
Lovejoy." She was making to leave. And to give me the money so I could pay
for the nosh. Her face was death, suddenly much younger in its despair.
The woolly man was beside himself. "Hey! A stuttery tart!
What a find! I'll bet when she"
Heat filled my face, and I thought, Oh Christ, here we go.
Embarrassment's always been a prime mover with me. I sometimes wish I could
ascend the evolutionary scale, from glands to cerebral cortex so to speak, but
it's happenings like this that keep you down. I reached, tugged Jo to stay her.
"No, love. Wait here."
"Please, L-L-Lovejoy." She meant don't make a scene.
Woody's is the one place she's allowed in the shopping precinct.
Toffee rose and walked with me, probably thinking, oh well, easy
come. I almost fell over her and said sorry. Woody called a weary, "Now,
Lovejoy," but I said without rancor, "Quiet, Woody," and gazed
down at the bloke.
Some things in life aren't in doubt. Like, the most beautiful
bottom ever painted is Louise O'Murphy's Boucher picture, owned by the
undeserving of Cologne; it's magic even for eighteenth-century Frame. And it
simply doesn't matter that Louise, daughter of a poor Irish immigrant, used up
lovers and husbands faster than church and Parisian society could count. The
point is that her bottom wins by a mile. No doubts, see? But other things in
life are never anything
doubt. Like, why should a peaceful
caff become Armageddon.
Looking down at this goon's piggy face, I realized I'm a great
believer in faces. Sit me in a market square and I'm content all livelong day
just watching faces. Mirrors of the soul. Some soul. I took the cruet,
unscrewed the salt cellar. Woody's salt is famed for its deliquescence, always
clogs the nozzle.
The nerk watched in outrage as I emptied the salt over his plate.
The pepper ran easier, out in a cloud. I dropped the containers into the grub.
"Here, you!" he bawled at Woody. "This
"Eat, lad," I said, tilting his plate onto his lap. Then
a runny sauce. A plate of pie off Woody's counter smeared on his front, and
goulash from John Parkworth—he's Georgian furniture—one table along. Finally,
with an excuse me to the appalled Lily, the table itself, and a kick to his
right elbow as the goon lay in the mess, because some of these roving dealers
carry paperknives. Police can't touch you for a paperknife. He was even louder
now, yelping and trying to scrabble. This disturbance wasn't my fault. I mean,
I'd honestly not started anything. I'd just been having my tea quietly, for
God's sake, and now this mess.
Toffee tripped me just about then. I went sprawling with my knee
in Piggy's belly. A pair of brilliant tan toecaps an inch away caught my eye.
Immaculate creases in the check trousers, cavalry twill. I sighed, lugged
myself into the upper air.
"Wotcher," I said resignedly. It had to be Sykie's elder
son Eric. Only a nerk dresses that bad. He stood there, a yard ahead of his
brother. Gold rings flashing, diamond facer watch dazzling, green leather
shirt. Both Sykes lads hate me. Happily they're scared of their dad. This keeps
them under control, but one day they'll go for me.
"Lovejoy. Come on."
"I'll finish my tea."
Sykie's lad drew breath, stayed silent. I rejoined Jo, Toffee as
usual giving me nowhere to put my feet. I was frightened. Jo must have seen my
tremulous fingers having two goes to spread margarine. Erica came with one of
those sponge mops that squeezes itself out when you lever the handle. They cost
a fortune but one day I'll afford one.
Jo whispered, "It's the Sykes b-b-b-brothers. Hadn't you
better make a run for it?"
Sykie's an honest-to-God cockney, big on the Belly—Portobello
Road, London. In fact I've often heard him say he founded the vast antiques
market there. He's got a soft spot for me because I rejected his sons as
apprentices, told him the truth instead of what he wanted to hear. Yet this
wouldn't exempt me from grievous bodily harm, on a whim.
My neurons upped a gear into panic. What had I done lately?
Nothing Sykie could be mad at, surely. I hadn't seen him since Christie's big
September sale of Keating fakes. Out of my league. Jo gave a brave smile.
"You d-d-d-don't pat a cat," she said, keeping the
conversation going for appearance's sake. "That's dogs."
The Sykes lads were lighting cheroots, would you believe, outside
the glass porch. "Er, look, love," I said, mopping the last ergs off
the plate. "Look after Toffee, eh?" And I was off, eeling hunchbacked
past where the fat bloke sat, messy head in his hands and moaning. I signaled
Woody I'd settle up with him later, got a sardonic glance. Why does he never
The Minories is a museum near the castle. By some oversight our
town councillors haven't flattened the lovely Queen Anne house into a car park.
It's left as a lovely quaint place, to rot to dereliction. And it would have,
except for Beryl the curator, a plumpish bird with dark eyes. Most days she
sits alone, ever hopeful for hordes of visitors. The trouble is, nobody comes,
only maybe some old soldier out of the rain or a couple of ancient crones
seeking warmth while planning their next bingo campaign. I don't trust museums
or curators, though I can forgive those like Beryl. She loves old dresses,
embroidery, lace, and endlessly fights the council to keep her museum open.
She's always just lost another round.