I find myself always torn between two beliefs: the belief that life should be better than it is, and the belief that when it looks better it is really worse - Graham Greene
Our dignity is in direct proportion to our passion - John Ruskin
Framed in the doorway he cursed his trembling fingers as they tried, ineptly, to re-button his fly. He felt sick. The pounding in his head was virtually indistinguishable from the pounding of the music. Through fractionally open, sleep encrusted eyes he glimpsed the carnage. The grey light of morning, intruding through the bare window, had lent the room a lurid veneer, and the grim reality of the situation forced itself upon his attention.
Last night the drugs - more, and more varied than he was used to - had tinted hard fact (their depraved behaviour and its horrific conclusion) with an innocuous shade of fiction. Beneath the half-light of a solitary light bulb - still burning but ineffectual now - it had all seemed different, funny even.
'DEBASER!' screamed the music accusingly. 'DEE-BASER!' it screamed again.
A number of unwelcome sensations were battling for supremacy inside his throbbing chest, welling up and receding, before welling up again more violently. Vague anxiety, the usual victor on mornings such as these, had, on this particular morning, been ousted by dread and panic while despair, biding its time, looked on.
He pressed his hands to his forehead, pushing the palms firmly into his eyes.
Above the din of the music he could hear Dooly whining, by the front door at the other end of the room. The dog's distressed ululations - desperate, pleading - seemed to accurately vocalise his own inner turmoil, and they affected him as the heart-rending strains of a violin might.
'Poor cunt. Must be starvin by now. Just wants to go home. '
He took as deep a breath as his fearful condition would allow.
'Come on, Billy, think! Should wake him up. Make him deal with it. Fuckin psycho! Right! First things first. Switch off that music.'
He took a few timid sidesteps along the back wall, hardly daring to look where he was going. For there, beneath the window, lay the source of his anguish.
Half crouching, with no small effort, he reached out a quivering hand and blindly fingered the front of the CD player. To better orientate his wandering fingers he risked a quick glance over and away and... Click.
Outside, the diminutive twitterings of some few birds provided a cheerful counterpoint to Dooly's baleful whining. But their cheerfulness could do nothing to lighten the mood in the room, only serving to bring out in bold relief the full horror of the situation. And it was even more horrific than Billy had first thought: as a result of that quick glance he had made a bewildering, grisly discovery. His sufferings were cranked up to hitherto unknown levels and a tidal wave of nausea coursed implacably through his body. The bile rose to his throat. He rested the palm of a hand against the wall to steady himself and his stomach made a fist. Its contents surged upwards through his trembling frame and were forcibly deposited, with a splash, onto the carpet.
The gestural equivalent, in humans, to the note of hopefulness that Billy suddenly detected in the heightened pitch of Dooly's whining would be the raising of eyebrows. He lowered his. Somebody in the stairwell! He listened apprehensively. Footsteps! Dooly's tail wagged uncontrollably and an involuntary series of expectant yelps emanated from the depths of his animated body. Was someone at the door? He strained to hear, not daring to breathe. Silence. He raised his head slightly. Footsteps, next landing. He released his quivering breath. Neighbours only. But still Dooly... The front door swung vigorously inwards as though dealt a powerful kick by the sole of a heavy boot. It rebounded off the inner wall (leaving a handle-sized piece of wallpaper embedded in the plaster) and swung back towards its assailant. It was halted by a firm hand. Billy, had jolted violently at the noise and instinctively spun to face the intruders, whereupon he had lost his balance and fallen back against the wall. He now found himself staring into the eyes of a somewhat disconcerted policeman, while another younger officer attempted to keep a gathering of nosy neighbours from rubbernecking ghoulishly into the room. The dog, free at last, snaked sharply round the door-jamb and fled through the curious assembly.
That was the last straw. Billy quite simply could not possibly feel any lower than he did at that moment. Then his foot slipped and he dropped arse first into the puddle of tepid vomit. A few drops squirted out at either side of him, splashing his bare forearms. He leaned his head, wearily, back against the wall and even allowed himself an ironic half-smile. His capacity for suffering had, in a few hellish minutes, been utterly exhausted and his captors, who now held his fate entirely in their hands, had, paradoxically, afforded him a sense of release. Even the dampness of the sick, as it seeped through the seat of his jeans to warm his clammy skin, was mildly comforting to him.
With his heroic entrance the policeman had no doubt intended to arouse the admiration of the onlookers, not least that of his second in command (he could have knocked after all), but the scene that greeted him had unmanned him more than a little and he now strove to superimpose the unflappable demeanour of a world-weary paperback detective over his obvious agitation. The appropriate attire - a careworn suit, say, and a shirt casually unbuttoned at the neck, no tie, and of course an overcoat - might have better enabled him to achieve this effect than did the navy-blue uniform that his lowly position as beat bobby called for him to wear.
The neighbours were eager to condemn. The wrought-iron banisters lent a metallic resonance to the cacophonic clamour of damning voices now ringing from top to bottom through the cold concrete stairwell.
'I'm never piggin done bangin up at them! Comin and goin at all hours, loud music day and night!'
'That's if you can call it music! It's just noise!'
'Aye, that's right! And the language! Always effin and blindin!'
'It was quiet before that other one moved in, but now...!'
'Last night I heard them shoutin "cut off his effin head! Cut off his effin head!"'
'Well, I'm not surprised it's came to this. If you live like animals, sooner or later you become animals!'
Finally, after a few false starts, the second policeman managed to intervene, telling them, in patient tones, to go and wait at home and someone would come around to take their statements later. Reluctantly they dispersed, nodding and shaking their heads emphatically, each in sympathy with the grievances of the other, and the young officer stepped inside to join his colleague, closing the door behind him.
He too was unmanned by the scene he encountered and had to swallow hard to keep from retching. His superior, who had since regained his composure, fixed him with a stern if hypocritical stare. They then proceeded to scan the room.
It was a typically small living room, longer than it was broad and sparsely furnished. The eyes of both officers were immediately drawn to the far right-hand corner of it. There - at the base of a life-size cardboard figure with its arms raised (of the type a record or video store might use for promotional purposes, though only the white back was visible) - lay the bloodied corpse of a young man. It was partially obscured from view, at one end of a couch, by the couch itself and also by what appeared to be a curtain, complete with curtain rail, draped haphazardly across the midriff. While his junior partner remained transfixed, the more experienced officer got on with the task at hand.
It was abundantly clear to him that what they were dealing with here was two age-old but distinct struggles. The first, and least important of these, was man's struggle to conquer himself, to raise himself above the level of the beast. A struggle evidently given up some time ago, if he were to judge by the squalor that now confronted them. Broken bottles and beer cans, drained to the dregs and crushed, before being tossed casually hither and thither, formed no small part of the garbage that thickly cluttered the floor. At the foot of a threadbare sunken armchair and the couch, long-ignored dinner plates and takeaway food containers were left carelessly lying and capricious summer flies, disappearing and reappearing, fitfully partook of the furred blue-green remnants of what had once been food and now - to the flies, at least - was again. This aspect of the room, while surely in breach of some council/tenant agreement, did not constitute a crime, and was testament only to the bacchanalian slovenliness of the flat's youthful occupants. In this respect it was perhaps no different to the houses of other young men in the district upon whom the officer had had reason to call in the course of his duties.
It was to the second struggle (by far the more serious), and anything that may be connected with it, that he now turned his attention. This was one individual's struggle for survival, another battle, as he could plainly see, sadly lost.
Blood, chilling in its ubiquitousness, tainted everything. It heavily stained the carpet in several places. The armchair cushion and back were also stained, and crude red handprints, reminiscent of a child's schoolroom artwork, were daubed on either arm. Smears of blood were clearly visible on the couch too, and from a splatter low on the wall, beside a CD player at the back of the room, thick dark drops had trickled down and extended left and right along the skirting.
In the near left-hand corner, still connected to the mains, a television, exposing its scant innards, was lying smashed screen upwards behind its stand. Again spots of blood flecked the wall beside it and traces were discernible on the jagged corners of the broken grey glass.
The officer paused, scarcely able to envision the savagery that had occurred here.
Immediately in front of him a small upturned table had spilled its contents onto the floor. Various pharmacological agents - powder, pills and resin - both within and without small resealable clear plastic bags, were mingled with assorted related paraphernalia - cigarette papers, cigarettes, lighters and loose tobacco. An upside down ashtray half covered a credit card - a platinum American Express credit card - and the officer, flicking the ashtray aside with the toe of his boot, cocked his head for a better look. 'R. Watson' read the signature.
And then, of course, there were the two probable perpetrators. Suspect number one was absent-mindedly tracing random patterns with his finger in what looked from here like vomit, while suspect number two lay sound asleep foetus-like on the couch with his hands tucked contentedly between his thighs. Blood liberally stained the clothing, and smeared the skin, of both young men.
On the floor beyond the armchair was an old-fashioned Polaroid camera, angular and ungainly, and one, two… six photographs. The elder constable gave his subordinate a nudge, and, with blatant disregard for copybook procedure, despatched him to retrieve one of them. This brought the young policeman within close proximity to his first dead body and he could not resist a closer look. At first he seemed puzzled, narrowing his eyes as though he were not quite sure what it was that he was looking at. His eyes suddenly widened. The shocking realisation blanched his rosy cheeks. Quickly snatching up a photograph he returned it with trembling hand to his superior, who, curios to know, yet none too keen to see, what had so disturbed his underling, took a moment to study it.
It appeared to show, in washed out colour, an unlawful sexual act taking place between two partially dressed males. The dominant male (clearly identifiable from his clothing as suspect number two) was kneeling behind his seemingly unconscious "partner" (presumably the deceased, vaguely familiar) who, positioned on all fours, was having his head pulled roughly upwards and backwards by the hair.
'Sir', ventured the young policeman. 'I think you should take a look at the body. But brace yourself!'
And this, with a degree of outward composure bordering on suavity, and a far higher degree of inner trepidation, his mentor now did.
With a sweep of his foot he scraped aside an assortment of litter from the right shoulder of the corpse and crouched before it. At a swish of his hand flies, like a flock of startled birds, took off, and frantically described figures of eight low above their carrion. A swish back scattered them further.
It, he, lay unseeing, eyes staring ceiling-wards. The left arm was trapped beneath its, his back, the right, palm-upwards by his side. His trousers had been pulled down and were gathered in folds, unfastened, around the calves; the legs were crossed at the ankles. He was not wearing any underwear. A puddle of thick, dark, coagulating blood, that had spilled from a deep gash in the head, now formed a sort of thin pillow beneath it. The officer had seen instantly the cause of his colleague's distress and the same strong feelings of perturbation gripped him now (though he was determined not to let them show). Part of the face was missing. The mouth hung open slightly and the whole right cheek, from just below the eye socket down to the lower jaw bone, and from the nose back to the ear, had been torn off. Raw flesh hung in ragged shreds around the dark cavity, and two half rows of top and bottom teeth, yellowing towards the molars, were exposed.
As he affected to coolly examine the body...
'Extensive bruising, mm-hmm. Possible fractured skull, ah-ha. Are those teeth marks?'
...the officer was all the while racking his brain for some light-hearted, flippant remark that would, he thought, corroborate his outward calm; something glib and wholly inappropriate, of the type that springs so readily to the minds of his fictional counterparts under similar circumstances. None was forthcoming and he retreated to his original position at the door, where he rejoined his companion, took a moment to compose himself and began to question the suspect.
'Okay, son, what's your name?'
'Billy. Billy Wilson.'
'Okay, Billy, what's through the back there?'
The officer nodded towards the doorway at the back of the room.
'Em, two bedrooms and a bathroom.'
'Is there anybody in there?'
'And through there?' he said, nodding towards the door to his left. 'Kitchen, right?'
'Is there anybody in there?'
'Okay. Now, who's this?'
With a flick of his head this time the officer indicated the couch.
'Tony. Tony Drake. Do you want me to wake him up for you?'
The officer paused.
'I'll ask the questions son. He's fine where he is for the time being. And who's that?'
Another flick indicated the body.
The officer paused again, this time to scrutinize the face of his interviewee.
'Don't mess about, son! You're in a lot of trouble here. Who is that?'
'It's Ryan Watson.'
'It's Ryan Watson?'
'Thee Ryan Watson?'
'The Ryan Watson who's currently topping the charts with "Just One Of The Lads", his fourth consecutive number one single, as a solo artist?'
The junior officer leaned in towards his superior and stated in a half-whisper that he, Watson, was thought to have been abducted from the local discotheque late last night.
'Okaayyy! And where's the rest of his face?'
'I honestly don't know.'
The officer, silent now, continued to stare at the suspect for a moment, then switched his gaze towards the body. Perhaps he was weighing the truth of the young man's statements. Or perhaps he was vainly trying to reconcile the image of the pop star - so energetic, so full of fun and mischief as he sang and danced in his music videos - with the wretched, lifeless, mutilated form before him.
'Oh, my god! This could be it! This could be the one that gets me noticed! I'd better get this next bit right in case the papers want to quote me verbatim. Okay, I need a strong opening to set the tone - "Right Billy, listen to me…" - That's good. I like that. Now, be stylish - "Bombsite, slaughterhouse, you and sleeping beauty here" - nice! Right, mention the facts - the neighbours, the photographs - but don't let them impede the rhythm. Then, dramatic finish - "I think, you'd better…" Perfect!'
He turned back to the suspect.
'Right, Billy, listen to me. Your flat looks like a cross between a bombsite and a slaughterhouse; there are enough drugs on the floor to put you and sleeping beauty here away for a considerable period of time; your neighbours are queuing up to testify against you, and I'm holding in my hand photographic evidence of enforced homosexual intercourse, while the victim, who just happens to be one of our most famous and highest earning celebrities, lies beneath your window, bloodied and battered to death, partially naked, with half of his face eaten away. I think you'd better tell me, in your own words, just exactly what happened here!'
Fans vie with fans, journalists with journalists, journalists jostle fans and vice versa. Curious record buyers, attracted by such an undignified furore, are more than content to stand tiptoe on its fringes, peering over the heads of the feverish rabble to try to catch a glimpse of its focus. But it is the paparazzi - bloody-minded mercenaries, modern day bounty hunters with cameras in place of guns - who fight hardest for pole position. Their liberal use of high elbows and shunting shoulders turns the very front of the crowd into the spit and image of a mosh pit at the hardest of hard rock concerts. From their cameras a sustained battery of brilliant white flashes, though themselves instantaneous, captures the star for posterity in a strobe-like succession of attitudes: now, leaning casually back in his chair and of thoughtful mien, as at one as a king on his throne; now, first with one hand, then with both, clasping warmly, reassuringly, across the desk in front of him, the trembling hand of a flustered admirer; and now, with a fat magic marker poised an inch or two above a copy of his own CD, looking inquiringly up at that admirer for the name or names of the autographee, before lowering his head to write, signing with a flourish, in that bold, flowing hand of his, his own name - known now to all and sundry, from sea to shining sea - Drako. Photographs that will be ruthlessly auctioned off to the highest bidders and tomorrow adorn in full colour the covers and pages of the world's popular press. And at a later date, in more artistic black and white, the self same photographs will surely decorate the halls and walls of private collectors. Or Hard Rock Cafes and the like, where, beside such iconic artefacts as a pair of John Lennon's John Lennon glasses and a Jimi Hendrix guitar, they will ignite the reminiscences of diners, who over their steaks or burgers will wistfully recall the giddy, all too fleeting days of their youth. And, who knows, maybe Tony himself will one day be among those diners, years from now, when the hectic pace of his current high life has slowed, as it must, to a totter. At some presentation dinner in his honour, perhaps, or a lifetime achievement luncheon. Where, amid the fawning praise and idle chatter, the chinking of cutlery on plates and the clinking of glasses raised to him, he too might allow himself a rare moment of quiet retrospection. Letting all the fuss and din fade into silence around him, as he absently picks at his chips, he'll gaze fondly up at an image of his much younger self, scarcely troubling to quell his swelling heart or suppress the proud tear that is sure to well in his eye.
He again leans casually back in his chair, and calmly scans the crowd, with eye and ear, for only those journalists asking the most pertinent questions. He allows as he does so a naturally authoritative air to temporarily triumph over his yet more natural star magnetism. This ensures that even the most ardent of his devotees, however impatiently, and however much they may push and shove and jostle each other, keeps, until directed otherwise, a respectful distance from himself.
The journalists, in their desire to directly participate in what must surely be the music news event of at least the last decade, collectively resemble a class of eager-eyed primary school children, who raise their hands as high as they can to attract the teacher's attention, each desperately trying to out raise the hands in front of them, waggling their little fingers, begging to be picked.
'Tony did you really kill him?'
'Tony did you really rape him?'
'Tony did you really eat his face?'
Tony, however, steadfastly ignores these muckrakers, whose aim it is in life to amass wealth and nothing else by littering with scandal and deceit the column inches of their inconsequential 'news' papers. He is utterly unfazed by their dogged persistence, and continues his search undaunted for a more serious and reputable individual.
His eye comes finally to rest on just such a journalist standing quietly near the back of the crowd. He is somewhat detached from its main body and his compound expression of embarrassment at, disdain for and disappointment in the near bloodlust of his counterparts is the precise manifestation of Tony's own innermost feelings. He knows instantly that this is his man. He can tell at a glance that here stands a like-minded professional who knows categorically that it is all about the music and not at all about any peripheral behaviour, good, bad or otherwise.
First, with an emperor-like raising of his hand, Tony hushes the crowd; then, pointing over its many heads, he gives a regal nod in the direction of this particular reporter by way of inviting forth his question (two more photographs sure to fetch substantial monetary reward for their takers). The man thanks Tony, with a respectful nod of his own, and, after a preparatory clearing of his throat, raises his head and asks:
'A wee cup of tea, son?'
The question, put not in the measured, professional tones expected by Tony, but in a woman's voice, shrill and aged, seemed to come from elsewhere, and it entered his consciousness on an altogether different plain. He furrowed his brow. This whirlwind, whistle stop tour of the world's biggest and most prestigious record stores had evidently left him a lot more tired than he'd allowed himself to admit. His brow remained furrowed and he focused hard: fans vie with fans, journalists, etc. Paparazzi with cameras in place of guns. Undignified furore. Sustained battery. Flash! Flash! Flash! A confident king on his throne. Drako with a bold flourish. Sea to shining sea. Fawning praise, idle chatter, swelling hearts and tears. An emperor-like hushing of the crowd. Regal nod and... The man thanks Tony, with a respectful nod of his own, and, after a preparatory clearing of his throat, raises his head and asks:
'I'm sayin, son, would you like a wee cup of tea? You're away in a wee world of your own there.'
The crowd evaporated in an instant, and there in its place, representing stark reality, stood a bespectacled, wizened-looking pensioner. The sight of her there, and in particular her attire - a standard Asda issue light-green tunic, with the sleeves gamely rolled up despite her years - painfully reminded Tony of how far he'd actually travelled and he deflated visibly. She, however, continued to lean on the handle of her broom, peering out saintly-faced from behind it in near servile anticipation of his response.
A surly grunt and a shake of his head was all the response he could muster.
'No? Are you sure now? It'll be an awful long day for you, sittin there all on your own.'
Her voice had a gravelly quality (no doubt from smoking at least forty cigarettes a day) that sounded for all the world to Tony like salt being rubbed, however inadvertently, into a wound. He smiled a wan, joyless, indulgent smile.
'I'm fine,' he said.
'Are you somebody famous, then?' the woman pried, hardly waiting for him to finish his last answer. 'I doubt you must be, if your supposed to be signin records, eh?'
"Supposed to be." There was that gravelly sound again.
The reference was to a chalkboard propped against the front of Tony's desk, which she scrutinised through the upper half of her bi-focal lenses. It had been borrowed for its purpose from Asda's own Red Balloon café and the faint ghost of recently erased lettering - advertising such daily staples as fish, chips, peas, bread and butter with a choice of tea or coffee for two-ninety-nine; or a "build your own breakfast" special, with any eight breakfast items for two pound fifty - could still be made out beneath what was written there now:
IN STORE TODAY
SIGNING COPIES OF HIS
FABULOUS DEBUT SINGLE
The woman was back to peering.
'I'm sayin, son, are you somebody famous?'
Tony patiently twirled the fat magic marker in his fingers, tapping it, now lid, now base, lightly on the desktop.
'My name's been mentioned once or twice in the papers,' he muttered darkly, never lifting his head, remembering with some embarrassment, not entirely unmingled with a certain malevolent satisfaction, his actions of "that night".
'Aye,' said the woman, 'I thought you must be. Some of the younger ones on the tills there must've recognised you. I could see them pointin and whisperin and what not. Drako? Is that your name?'
She pronounced it Drahko.
'It's Drako,' said Tony, pronouncing it correctly. 'Aye.'
'And you've got a song in the charts then?'
'Drako?' repeated the woman. 'I must mind and ask my grand weans if they've heard of you. No doubt they will have, mind you. They know all the latest pop stars. Anyway, son, I'd better be gettin on with my work. Are you sure you'll not change your mind about that wee cup of tea? That's only comin on three o'clock the now. It'll help to break the day up for you... No? Well, if you do change your mind just give me a shout. I'm always here or hereabouts. Margaret's my name. Just ask for Margaret.'
She tap-tapped the nametag on her chest and off to work she went, sweeping under the shelves and the feet of the shoppers browsing them with exaggerated vim and vigour, stopping as often as not to prattle cheerily away to anyone around her who'd listen, before disappearing into ready meals, soup and canned fish.
Tony, alone again, fell to rueful brooding.
Thanks for taking the time to check this out. If you would like to read a bit more, or even purchase the completed novel, please click either of the external links provided. Thanks again.