With only a week to go until Halloween, I thought the time was right to bring you another extract, this time from my 2012 novel, Paint this town Red.
Buy the novel here.
EXTRACT: PAINT THIS TOWN RED
As the press cameras fizzed and popped, Manny Combs shot them what he liked to think of as his patented Remember me, Cheryl Hammerstein? look. Side profile. Staring off into the middle distance as though not quite concentrating on the present moment. Proud jawline but awkward smile as though he was unused to the cameras. As though he was saying aw shucks, what do you wanna take a snap of an old snapper like me for?
Each and every carefully choreographed press shot the same. From his poster-sized mayoral inauguration pic which had pride of place in the Town Hall corridors to the simple, supposedly off-the-cuff shots of him opening a new branch of MacAskill’s SupaBuyz on the mainland or the extension to the Ship. Those same watery eyes. That same sense of wistful hope. A forlorn hope, sure, but hope nonetheless. Only slight flaring to the nostrils which suggested that deep down he knew why they were snapping his snapper. Because he was the big man about town. A man of power, but also a man with a great well of emotion inside him.
Of course, there was no Cheryl Hammerstein. But most people had someone like that. Some dreamboat who but for the will of fate could have been their soul-mate. The one who’d got away. And, in moments of triumph such as this, Manny wanted to project the image that he was just like everyone else. So he’d imagined up Cheryl. And she was the muse which he was counting on to inspire victory in his last, and most important election. Coming up in May, the Limm Islanders would go to the polls and they’d cast their votes on the single biggest issue which had reared its head on the island since the war (discounting the cult, and everybody discounted that, wiped it from the annals). They’d be at the ballot boxes in their droves, and their decision on whether to say ‘yeigh’ or ‘neigh’ to his vital, life-support line of a bridge was also a decision on whether they got his ever so humble face. Whether they could somehow go for the appearance (that he was just another one of them) over the reality (he was a major landowner, the CEO of the mead factory, and majority shareholder in the Castle Hotel, and thus a good few social stratum above the fishermen, farmers, shopkeepers, teachers, boat-taxi drivers, and part-time National Trust men who formed the majority of the island’s residents.)
So with Cheryl – Chezza as he sometimes called her when he was feeling particularly affectionate, which wasn’t so often these days thanks to his dodgy ticker – floating somewhere on the horizon, perhaps reciprocating his smile, Manny felt able to get on with doing what he did best. Being a man of the people. And boy were there a lot of people. People, people everywhere and not a drop to drink. Used to be you’d only see numbers like this for Armistice Day, or for the speech days before the election, or the Viking festivals, or for May Queen, or when, for a few years, they’d run that godawful hippy One World Festival up at High Loan Park.
The people were here for the talent show. Here to be spoon-fed their entertainment. Here to watch the second-raters they queued with at MacAskill’s or Buckby’s Book-Buys or The Crab’s Claws for their weekly shop, massacring pop classics on the old karaoke. Here to watch their colleagues at the mead factory knocking seven bells out of a tap dance routine. Here to watch the PE teacher from the school brutalising a comedy sketch. But mostly, they were here to watch the grand finale, the coup de grace; that same supermarket queuer, that same mead factory colleague, that same PE teacher being massacred, seven-belled, brutalised by the judging panel. They were here to boo and hiss. Here for the pantomime. Sometimes, Manny wondered why they didn’t just cut to the chase and install a set of stocks on the stage. Or have done with it and bring back public hanging. Sure it was a modern world, but it was a medieval world too. It was like the second coming of the dark ages, he sometimes thought.
‘One more, Mr. Mayor, sir,’ called Yoghurt Rhodes, the rather over-enthusiastic part-time photographer from The Tide Piper. Rhodes was crouching low, in a sort of zigzag position, with one leg bent up on the second of the wooden steps which led up to the stage. He too was trying to project an image. An image of competency. He was aping proper photographers, had probably seen the way paps moved crab-wise around their targets. But despite his earnest efforts, Manny had already noted that the town photographer’s (surprisingly muddy) high-vis bib was emblazoned with the legend CYCLING PROFICIENCY INSTRUCTOR, his other part-time role; something which seemed to bring the whole composition into question. As did the rather gormless expression on his freckled features. As did the egg-shaped lump on the side of his head which made him appear even clumsier, even more cumbersome.
‘All right, but be quick about it,’ said Manny, a note of weary good humour in his voice. He shuffled into his typical side-on position and Cherylled his eyes. ‘I’m sure you, and the guys from Charnley too, have got quite enough snaps of my ugly mug for one day.’
Rhodes, on his haunches, fired off a quickfire triple click and then obediently moved away from the steps. He’d always been suitably… submissive, had Yoghurt. Deferential. Manny liked that in his townspeople, though Christ knew few enough of them showed it these days. Perhaps that was why Manny always felt he could cut Yoghurt just that extra bit of slack. If it had been anyone else keeping him off the stage, where he was, any minute now, supposed to be giving the welcome (and housekeeping) speech, and later taking on the role of one of the judges, he’d have been liable to give them a piece of his mind. But Yoghurt was… Well, different. Retarded, Manny always wanted to say, but didn’t, because one had to be more than careful about what one said these days. Hell, it was probably politically incorrect to call him Yoghurt even. But everyone did, even his poor old ma, so he was probably okay on that score.
He was called Yoghurt because his skin was so deathly pallid it seemed to glow. And because he was literally polka-dotted with freckles. And these weren’t your common or garden freckles either. No, they were angry blotches. Manny had seen some of that horrible Philadelphia film once, and before he’d been able to find the remote control to switch it off, he’d seen those lesions on the Aids-boy’s body. That was what Yoghurt’s freckles looked like. Lesions. (Though they weren’t of course; Manny had had a quiet word with Ray Shaw, the town doc, and had been convinced on that score.) To others, the rather more imaginative kids, the blotches looked more like the rather bedraggled pieces of fruit in a lumpy yoghurt, especially when set against his soupy-white skin, and so the name had stuck. So fast he might as well have been wearing it on his mustard bib which clashed so badly with his strawberry blond hair.
‘You’re a good lad, Yoghurt,’ said Manny, slapping an appreciative paw onto his shoulder, taking care not to touch the CYCLING PROFICIENCY INSTRUCTOR bib because now he could see it closer, he saw it was covered with some stains which looked rather more suspicious than mud. Rhodes visibly flinched at Manny’s touch.
‘Uh… tha… thank you Mister Combs, sir.’ For a brief moment his eyes met Manny’s, but then he dropped them resolutely to the floor, starting a staring competition with the muddy grass which had already be-spotted Manny’s good shoes.
‘Is that a new camera?’ Manny continued, noting the rather fancy Nikon which Rhodes had dangling from a cord which stretched around his neck, probably so he didn’t lose it.
At the mention of his camera, Rhodes suddenly gained confidence. He raised his head, grinning. ‘Do you like it? It’s a Nikon D40 Mister Combs, sir. I got it for my twenty-first last week. It’s beautiful, eh? I… I dropped it yesterday and I thought it was a goner, but …’ And now he was becoming excited, the words were starting to tumble out of him. He turned the camera over in his hands, marvelling. ‘But it’s so well designed. Hardly a crack on it. And it’s fast and easy to use. Bad cameras are ten-a-penny. Bad cameras shout about the megapixels and all that, but my Nikon, it just gets on with the job. And do you know what that job is, Mister Combs, sir?’
Manny didn’t answer for a moment. He was still in shock after discovering Rhodes was twenty-one. Key to the door twenty-one. You were supposed to be a man at twenty-one. Rhodes still looked a boy, if admittedly a long, streakapiss gawky one.
‘The job of a good camera is to get out of your way. To avoid becoming a chunky obstacle,’ spat Rhodes. ‘The job of a good camera is to facilitate your… your relationship with what you’re seeing in your mind, and… and…’ He stopped. Must have seen the surprise in Manny’s face. The surprise which Manny had tried ever so hard to mask.
‘I’m… I’m sorry,’ stuttered Rhodes, his face suddenly turning raspberry yoghurt, his lesions seeming to seep into each other. ‘Mam says… I get too carried away with my camera. I’m sorry Mister Combs, sir. I didn’t mean to keep you. I know how busy you must be.’
Manny flashed him a luxuriant smile. Of course he was busy, but if he didn’t have time to shoot the breeze with his subjects then where would he be? It was all about that personal touch. And besides, Yoghurt Rhodes was most definitely of voting age now. And he needed every vote when the next election came around in May. Almost without thinking, Manny reached out an arm and scruffed Rhodes’ hair. When he thought about this later, and admittedly this was much later, because a lot happened on the day of the talent show which took precedence over a simple, ill-advised touch, Manny cringed. At the time, he merely stopped smiling when he discovered Rhodes ginger hair wasn’t as soft as it looked, but was, in fact, wiry, tough, and had the crinkly consistency of pubic hair.
Quickly, Manny took himself away, off up the stairs, to greet the rest of his public. When he stepped out onto the stage, he was still surreptitiously wiping off the bad germs from Rhodes’ hair onto his trousers.
When he stepped out onto the stage, the first thing he noticed was the wind coming off the North Sea. Christ the stage was covered, but the cover had turned it into a wind-tunnel. It wasn’t even windy off stage; was barely even breezy, the morning drizzle had given way to one of those dull lunch-times, even duller afternoons, but up here… Up here he just knew it would play havoc with his remaining wispy hairs. Just knew they’d be floating up in the air like strands of candy-floss. Just knew that the townspeople, the islanders would be nudging each other. Laughing behind their hands. He drew himself up to his full majestic height of five nine and dared them to laugh out loud.
In fact, nobody appeared to be laughing. As Manny stood at the microphone, some flunky adjusting its height for him, he realised nobody had even noticed he’d gained the stage yet. He looked out over that sea of faces, most of which he’d be able to put a name to if he let his gaze linger over them longer than a simple cursory, and saw they were all, to a man, woman and child, resolutely not looking at the stage. A lot of them were, of course, simply chatting amongst themselves, sharing gossip and the like. But still more had their heads dropped. Were engrossed in their damn mobile phones or their Ipods or their portable games consoles. And there were others whose eyes he couldn’t see because they were so trussed up in their winter clothes. Big woollen, sailor-style hats pulled down low, or scarves dragged up high, Michelin Man coats which seemed to bubble over their faces. That was just about understandable given the conditions, but what wasn’t understandable, what was pretty ruddy far from okay, was the fact that he couldn’t see the eyes of some of them because they were wearing their damn hoods up, and if there was one thing Manny didn’t like, with a passion which boiled hotter than even his hatred for mobile phones, it was hoods. The mayor in Charnley had run a successful campaign to get hoodies banned from the precinct in the sort-of next-door neighbour town and never failed to rub it in that Manny hadn’t managed to pass a similar scheme through here.
‘Sign of your waning power,’ the snub-nosed chancer had taken great delight in informing him, accompanying his hurtful words with a jack-hammer prodding in Manny’s chest. It had been all Manny could do to resist slapping the feller round the chops. That he hadn’t was likely because he knew for a fact the Charnley mayor was right. His power was on the wane; certainly a few years back, he wouldn’t have even needed to worry about the election. But now, he’d heard the mutterings at the bar of the Ship, read the letters to the editor in The Tide Piper, and he’d asked his occasional secretary, Mrs. Heggarty (Mrs. Higgledy-Piggledy, he called her, on account of her consistently messy hair and her piggish snout), what the word on the street was. And he’d not been expecting such an honest reply from a woman who usually made mice seem rambunctious. Mousy wasn’t the word for her, but somehow she’d managed to rise above her usual shell-shocked whisper to inform him, in what sounded like a delighted voice, that the word on the street was that he was a dinosaur.
Well if he was a dinosaur, he was a ruddy T-Rex. And he was an intelligent T-Rex too. Hence the talent show on this day of all days. Hence he was going to be one of the judges. Hence he was going to play, he’d made sure of it, the kind judge, leaving it to newspaperman Mike Ford, to play the hard-man. Good cop-bad cop. All pantomime of course, but if he played it right, he might just improve his ratings in the polls.
The talent show was being held on the south side of the island, down at Coverley Bottoms (or Cover ye Bottoms as the town’s kids called it, hell as everyone called it, apart from Manny, of course). It was pretty much the flattest piece of land on an island which was otherwise all hills and valleys and beach and harbour and had hence become, almost by accident, the mass meeting place for days such as this despite the fact it was a bit of an industrial no-man’s land. Once upon a time, when Limm still had ideas above its station, a couple of factories had sprung up down here, right alongside the mead factory, due in no small part to the fact they could use the River Drey as a constant, free water supply. But those factories had polluted the river to within an inch of its life and the new industry the town was counting on to secure its future never came. The new road they’d built down here was never actually completed, was given up as a bad job. The southern woodland they’d cleared to make way for the new factories just became a wasteland. During this term of office, Manny had campaigned to get a perimeter fence installed. He’d only narrowly won the vote, his victory only secured at the eleventh hour when a child had wandered off during last year’s May Queen ceremony and fallen into the River Drey. The kid hadn’t died, but had become very ill due to the chemicals which remained in the water. And Manny had won through on the child-safety vote. Today was the first day they’d be able to utilise the fence for its proper purpose, forcing people to have to pay to get in and not simply jib in through the woods which flanked the flat ground.
He looked out over all his paying townspeople and immediately started to feel better about the whole thing. Sure it was cold. And windy. Sure his hair was getting messed up and he’d have to sit through hours of water torture at the hands of the hopeless who thought they were the great and good, but soon he could be back at the town hall on Farne Street with his feet up, counting the takings into the coffers. The idea was a good one, he couldn’t believe he’d ever doubted it. In Manny we Trust. They should have installed it as the Limm Island motto. Hell, they should have scrawled it on the huge banner, fluttering in the hardly-even-a breeze above the stage. The banner which actually bore the legend, TALENT-STRAVAGANZA!!!!!! Stupid name that, but that was what you got when you let schoolchildren choose.
He cleared his throat, prepared to speak. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Yoghurt Rhodes hunkering down by the side of the stage, ready to fire off a few more shots. The other photographers, the ones from the bigger local papers, the ones run from offices in Charnley and Kirkby-le-Stag, and not from back rooms in the bloody library like The Tide Piper, were nowhere to be seen now. They had their shots. Could pass them off to their editors and pretend they’d been at Limm Island’s TALENT-STRAVAGANZA!!!!! for the whole day when in reality, by now they’d be down the pub, getting fine and dandied. Which was what newspapermen did all the time. Was what everyone did all the time. Every day of their goddamn miserable excuses for lives. They cleared space so they could drink and drink and drink. It was no wonder the world, the country, the county, was going to the dogs when only Manny Combs could keep a sober head on him.
He cleared his throat again, checked his mayoral chain was the right way round, and then he began. ‘Ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls, Limm islanders and visitors, honoured guests and old friends, welcome to you all.’ He paused. He could still hear the steady hum of conversation underscoring his words. Could still hear the dawn chorus of chirping mobile phones as text messages spread amongst the crowd like a virus. Turning phones onto silent was top of his ‘housekeeping’ list, but he knew he couldn’t simply start shouting at them to do it now, not before he’d warmed them up.
‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, they said we were mad,’ he continued, in a deep, confident voice. ‘They said we were off our rockers, that we didn’t know what we were doing. They said nobody in their right minds would come to an open air talent show in February.’ He shot a pointed look to Mike Ford, the newspaperman, who was creeping up the back of the stage and pulling up a pew behind the long trestle table which formed the judges’ panel. Ford shrugged, perhaps remembering his ill-advised headline Rain’s Got Talent, and his even more critical sub-headline, February Show Set to be a Wash-Out. Manny carried on, finding his rhythm now, attaining a flow, getting in the zone. ‘They said we were over-reaching ourselves…’ He let the pause linger. He basked in the crowd’s new found silence. Their submission.
He raised his hand, laid it flat across his brow as though he was straining to see something on the horizon. ‘They said we were creating a white elephant, but I can’t see any wild beasts on our island today, can you, boys and girls? I don’t think the travelling circus has come to town today, do you, boys and girls? I don’t think Coverley Bottoms has become a zoo…’
For a giddy moment, he thought he’d over-egged the pudding. Scores of excitable kids set about wriggling in their seats, craning their necks, and yelping as they looked around for Manny’s wild animals. Some of them pretended to be wild animals. He heard a few ‘oop, oop’ chimp noises, a few tiger roars, a couple of bird whistles. But soon their mums started to get them back in order.
‘All I can see is a great North Sea of faces. An ocean of faces. Faces which bear testimony to the fact that the Limm Island TALENT-STRAVAGANZA!!!!! is exactly what the town, the island, needs in order to banish those winter blues.’
The audience whooped and hollered (like Americans, Manny thought, with mild distaste.)
‘The TALENT-STRAVAGANZA!!!!! is what we need to blow all the cobwebs away, good and proper.’
The audience whooped and hollered again. Manny held up a warning paw.
‘But it’s about more than that. This island has had a bad press over the years, even, in some cases from our own town newspaper,’ he said, injecting his voice with a Cherylly sadness, casting a reproachful eye back at The Tide Piper’s owner, editor, chief writer, sports correspondent Mike Ford, the man principally responsible for that awful opinion column The Voice of the Sea. ‘I sometimes get the impression that some people would be happy if we hid our lights under a bushel. They’d be pleased if we never made any headlines at all. Sure, we all know we’ve been burned in the past, but being down here, at Coverley Bottoms, is surely the only reminder of that which we need.’ He raised a finger. ‘Back then, we had it wrong. Back then, we thought it was our natural resources – the bird reserve, the beach, the river, the hills, the monastery – which would finally elevate this town above the also-rans like… Well, you know who I’m referring to now, don’t you, ladies and gentlemen…’ Nods of agreement in the crowd. Face-cracking grins. A couple of teenagers lowered their hoods. Yoghurt Rhodes flashed off another couple snaps from his Nikon.
‘Back then, we thought we could grow by dent of the fact we were different from everywhere else. That we were like a place set apart. But we were wrong. The powers that be, back then, were barking up the wrong tree. You see, ever since you kind folks voted me into power, I’ve been of a different opinion. I’ve been of the opinion that the thing we’ve got that nobody else round here does, not your Charnley’s or your Kirkby-le-Stag’s or your Barnwick’s… The thing which makes us better than those other places… The thing that makes us unique… Well it’s you.’ And here he spread his arms as though he was embracing the whole crowd. He Cherylled better than he’d ever done before.
‘Ladies and gents, boys and girls, you are the seeds from which this island, this town will grow. From which great things will evolve. You are the future. And that’s why ‘white elephants’ like the TALENT-STRAVAGANZA!!!!! are so important. Because here today, we’re going to see just how much wondrous talent we have here, and we’re going to bring it out from under that bushel for all the world to see. Ladies and gents, boys and girls, today we take our first small step in what we hope will be a giant leap for the town. And the best thing about it is that it’s going to be great fun. We’ve got dance acts, comedy, singers, uh, a poet, a gymnast, BMX riders, a sheepdog trialler… We’ve got everything under the sun for your viewing pleasure. But always remember, the performers today are our people. Our sons and daughters, our sisters and brothers, our teachers, our dentists, our fishermen, our fishmongers, our hoteliers and our coastguard. Today, ladies and gents, boys and girls, I am but your humble judge, and I promise I’ll keep you no longer than strictly necessary before we move on to the fun, but first, it falls to me to run you through a few housekeeping rules and general regulations for the show.’ He shrugged. ‘Some guys get all the luck, eh?’
There were a few groans, a couple of yawns, a noticeable increase in message-received beeps while Manny pulled a scrap of paper from his pocket and raced through the housekeeping, but generally, he was pleased to note, there wasn’t much by way of disruption. People were seeing this as a necessary evil, something to be got through before the fun started. They didn’t blame him for it. Hell, they probably blamed Mike Ford. All those well-timed digs about the press had reminded them all about The Voice of the Sea’s demands that there be proper health and safety, his persnickety banging-on. He was the one to blame and it would only get worse for him when he had to play up to his pantomime villain bad-judge role. Everything was working out just as Manny had foreseen it.
When he finished, he nodded to Sally Martin, the school’s music teacher, who was standing by the steps at the side of the stage. Sally was to be the presenter of the show (and also the musical accompaniment if any were needed; she’d got her piano set up in the equivalent of the orchestra pit). It was her job to announce the acts, ask the judges for their verdicts, and tell the contestants ‘well done’ after they’d finished their performances and were snail-trailing back off the stage and into obscurity. And yet, despite the fact she barely had any responsibility, the woman looked genuinely scared. Throughout Manny’s grand speech, she’d kept removing her glasses with shaking hands and trying to polish them up. Every time she noticed him looking at her, she fiddled with her damn ponytail. Now, she’d lost so much colour in her cheeks she looked as though she was about to pass out. As she gingerly climbed the steps, Manny realised he should have gone for someone decidedly more glamorous. Sally was wearing this big, shapeless fleece coat thing which drowned her. She looked more like a dinner-lady than a presenter. He waited for her at the microphone and gave her an encouraging pat on the arm before she introduced the first act, hoping that would be enough. Hoping she’d also see the fiery warning in his eyes.
‘Hello everyone, one and all,’ she said, simply. ‘Thank you very much for coming, despite the – brrrrrrrrrrr – cold. Thank you for putting so much faith in the people of this fine town, this fine island.’
Manny was hoping she’d go on to talk more about why it was such a fine town, what set it apart from wherever it was she’d grown up – down south probably – but she didn’t. She was straight into the business of the day. ‘I’m sure you don’t want to hear me prattle on; some of the kids here today hear enough of that at school…’ She waited out the muted boos before concluding. ‘And so, without further ado, I’d like you to give your very best Limm Island welcome to our first act of the day, a group of girls I know very well as they’re in my fourth year class, and I’m sure everyone else will know them after today. Limm Island, meet Dancing in the Moonlight!’
Warm applause followed. A few wolf whistles; Manny hoped they were from the fourth year boys and not any of the older males in the audience. But as he caught sight of the fourth year girls’ dancing troupe as they climbed the steps, as he almost saw up their short, short glittery skirts, he felt his heart give an involuntary flutter. He heard a wolf-whistle of his own inside his ears. Whether it was a wolf-whistle of appreciation or pain was open to some debate. Quickly, he pulled up a pew next to Mike Ford behind the trestle table.
‘Ever seen Donnie Darko, Mr. Combs?’ asked Mike.
Manny narrowed his eyes. What was this journalist fool playing at, distracting him like this? Doubtless this Donnie Darko was some kind of porno. Doubtless Ford was fishing, seeing whether he’d see the glimmer of recognition in Manny’s eyes. Well, Manny wouldn’t give him the satisfaction. Instead he stared directly ahead, at the girls as they arranged themselves in a V-formation, like vacationing birds. They were dressed like a cross between cheer-leaders and short-skirted Christmas trees, and if Manny had seen them on the street he’d have disapproved, but as it was, they were on stage, so he figured it didn’t really matter.
The girls waited patiently, not a hint of giggling or anything – he’d mark them up for that – while Sally clip-clopped back down the steps, moved round the front of the stage, and then positioned herself behind the piano, as though she was going to play the tune to compliment a silent movie at the cinema. She was acting out her moves like a silent movie actress as it was, giving this big exaggerated nod to the girls on stage, and then counting them in with a sign-language a-one, a-two, a-one, two, three, four.
Manny immediately recognised the tune. It was from some supermarket ad. Mike Ford gave this wholly over-the-top groan and started writhing around in his seat as though he’d shat his pants.
‘Grow up,’ hissed Manny.
‘I can’t help it, I hate this song, I hate Toploader.’
Manny was about to give him a piece of his mind, but found himself transfixed by the fourth year girls’ movement. The dance was rhythmically slow, not like those awful, regimented, slapped-thigh majorette routines he remembered his contemporaries dancing when he was that age. The dance was almost sensual. The girls hunkered down and then rose up from the stage like snakes being charmed. The girl at the front of the V, he’d find out her name later, was practically gyrating, swinging her hips in time to Sally Martin’s piano, moving like a willo-the-wisp.
The crowd started chanting. Or something like it; certainly they were making a lot of noise, especially towards the back. He strained to see what was going on, tried to pick out any obvious ring-leaders, but it was hard to see exactly what was going on in the general commotion. Even Mike Ford appeared to have noticed what was going on. ‘Trouble at t’mill,’ he said, elbowing Manny rather too sharply in the ribs and pointing off in the direction of the disturbance at the back of the crowd. ‘Still think this was a good idea?’
‘It’ll be a few drunks,’ hissed Manny, ‘that’s all. Nothing to worry about. Soon as this act’s finished I’ll get Sam Bibby to go and have a word with them.’
Mike Ford pretended to be shocked. ‘Sam Bibby? Are a few drunken buffoons enough to get the police in for? Are they going to cause a riot do you think?’
The idea had already crossed Manny’s mind. For he could see that whatever was happening at the rear of Coverley Bottoms was getting worse. Now the muffled shouts had become something else, something wilder. Now he could see people back there starting to push, starting to elbow each other out of the way. Even the dancing troup appeared to have noticed all was not well. In the middle of a slow, luxuriant pirouette, the blond girl at the front of the V gave a brief stumble, shouldered into her second in command, and for a beat it looked as though they’d all collapse like ten-pins, but Sally Martin’s relentless piano accompaniment seemed to soothe them, and saved the day, for now at least.
Manny stood up to try to get a better view of what was going on off-stage. Mike Ford soon joined him. They looked on as the jostling for position turned into something of a bar-room brawl. They looked on as fists flew, as bodies fell, as women shielded children, as poor Sam Bibby tried to restore order. They looked on as Sally Martin finally realised something was wrong and stopped playing. They looked on as the fourth year girls’ dancing troup froze, stock-still, as though they’d been playing at musical statues on a shingle beach. They looked on as the battling crowd started to part, as though a huge bowling ball had been sent tumbling through it.
Mike Ford shot Manny a look. Looked as though he was going to follow the look up with the actual words: I told you so. But he never got the chance. A scream pierced the wintry air. Then another. A third chilled through the whole assembly. Everyone stared at the yawning space of muddy ground where the crowd had been, where the disturbance had first occurred. And at first Manny could see nothing wrong. Later, he’d think it unbelievable that he didn’t immediately recognise this as the terrible start of something, or the beginning of the end. But he genuinely couldn’t see what the fuss was about. Couldn’t see why Sam Bibby, along with a couple of fellers from the St. John Ambulance were now stalking carefully into that yawning space, stalking crouched low with their hands in front of them as though they were trying to catch, or ward off some kind of animal.
And then he saw it. Saw him. A battered, bloodied figure crawling across the wet, litter-strewn grass, dragging his half-dead body on. The crowd pressed back, away from him as though they didn’t want to be infected.
‘What the fuck?’ said Mike Ford. ‘The fight didn’t look that bad.’
But Manny knew. Knew the man wasn’t injured as the result of any fight. This was different. This smelled different. His nostrils flared and he sucked in the intoxicating aroma of otherness. Golden valve otherness. His right knee trembled as though it was going to give way.
‘You need to calm the crowd, make some announcement,’ said Mike.
But Manny remained as frozen as the fourth year girls’ dancing troup. In the yawning space, the two St. John’s Ambulance men had reached the crawling man and were trying to stop him crawling. They were quickly joined by Sam Bibby, who promptly set about ordering the crowd back, although there was absolutely no need for him to do so. Someone started to shout over the microphone on stage; out of the corner of his eye, Manny saw it was Mike Ford.
‘Everybody remain calm! Stay away from the, uh, victim. Give him some room.’ He paused, then: ‘IS THERE A DOCTOR IN THE HOUSE?’
There was, and he was already stepping forward onto the grass which was already stained with blood from the mauled man. The town’s one and only qualified doctor, Ray Shaw, stepped into the breach, accompanied by his able assistant, and Sam’s twin brother, Mart, the part-time male nurse. The fairy male nurse; Manny hadn’t credited the great hulking brute with that much bravery…
Suddenly he realised he needed to get in on the act. Needed to be seen to be getting in on the act. It was time for the mayor to take control. He forced himself to move. Creaked through the dancing troup and down the steps off the stage. Like Moses, he parted the waves of the crowd and he walked to the back of the field, breathing heavily. By the time he reached the medical men who were surrounding the mauled man, he was almost bent-double from the effort. By the time he reached them, they were already arguing about the best way to get the mauled man to hospital.
‘We can’t use the ambulance,’ said one of the St. John’s men, in a rather panicky voice. ‘We couldn’t get it through the perimeter so we hard to park it on the road… It’s too far…’
‘We could call Crabbie’s Boat Taxis, get him to drive right up the river,’ said the other.
‘Don’t be stupid,’ sighed Sam Bibby, ‘you know as well as me that Crabbie’s are about as reliable as…’ He looked as though he was going to say something derogatory about Manny, but stopped himself at the last minute, seeing the mayor on the outside of their circle.
‘Well, whatever we do we need to move him quickly,’ said Ray Shaw who was crouching over the body, ‘he’s already lost a lot of blood and we need to get those bites he’s got seen to, properly.’
‘Bites?’ said Sam Bibby. ‘I thought this was, you know, from a fight…’
‘Shut up, all of you,’ said Manny, shouldering though so he was standing over the body. For a moment, the sight of the mauled man’s exposed flesh, the tears in his clothing, the gaping wounds, the pure, unadulterated terror in his eyes, gave him pause, but he managed to compose himself. Took another deep, restorative breath. ‘Keep your voices down. The world is watching. Now, where exactly is that ambulance? We need this cleared-up as quickly and quietly as possible. Understand?’
The mauled man seemed to understand. He coughed, spluttered, vomited a torrential flood of blood all over Ray Shaw’s overcoat. Shaw looked just about ready to vomit himself.
‘The ambulance is parked-up on Dye Lane,’ gulped one of the St. John’s men. ‘But it’ll take a good ten minutes to walk up there and…’
Manny stopped him. Held up a traffic-cop palm. With his other hand he fished out his razor thin mobile phone, flipped it open, and pressed a single-button. He had his chauffeur on speed-dial.
‘Mark? Yes, it’s me. No, it’s not over. Listen. I need you to do something for me. You’re waiting on Dye Lane, aren’t you? Good… What I need you to do is go-fetch the St. John’s Ambulance… Yes, I know you don’t have the keys, just listen… I need it by hook or by crook, understand? Bring it down to Coverley Bottoms… Yes, there’s been a problem, but I’ll tell you about it later. Just bring it down here, and then go back for the car… Yes, we’re going to The Bungalow. Follow us up there.’
He snapped the phone shut. ‘There. Sorted.’
‘But… but…’ stammered one of the St. John’s men.
‘Town’ll cover any expenses incurred when my chauffeur commandeers your ambulance, don’t you worry about that,’ said Manny.
‘I don’t think he was worried about that,’ said Ray Shaw, raising his blood-spattered head, turning to face Manny. ‘I think what he’s worried about is taking this… poor man back to my clinic and not to the proper emergency ward at Marwell. I mean, The Bungalow’s not equipped to deal with something like this… It’s only a clinic really.’
Manny hunkered down alongside the aging doctor. ‘Remember what I said earlier about the people of this town being the seeds from which this town will grow? From which great things will evolve? Well this is your chance.’
Now it was Shaw’s turn to stammer. He gestured to the mauled man. ‘But…’
‘Another thing, doc. The people of this town might be the seeds but they can also be poison. We take care of this in-house, you understand? This man goes to your clinic, to The Bungalow as you call it. And he’ll receive the best Limm Island treatment.’
Prone on the floor which was slicked with his own blood, the mauled man gurgled again. His gurgle might have been an attempt at a scream. It was hard to tell, a large portion of his throat was missing. But what was certain was the fact he didn’t seem entirely happy about receiving this Limm Island treatment. The man – Manny still didn’t recognise him despite his close proximity – sucked in a deep, blocked-drain breath, seemed to be summoning all of his remaining strength for something. And then, with a tremendous effort, he raised both of his hands and gripped Dr. Ray Shaw’s coat. Manny was surprised by how clean, how unmarked his hands were compared to the rest of his broken body. There were no cuts, no open wounds, all of his digits remained intact (which meant, Manny knew, that whatever had attacked him – and attacked really was the word, this was no accident – had moved with such stealth, such speed, the mauled man hadn’t even been able to defend himself.)
Still gripping Shaw’s coat with rigor-mortis force, the man let out a rasping breath, and then spluttered two words. Shaw leaned in closer, paying no mind to the blood which was continuing to rain down on him, and as he did so, the man barked, ‘Help me!’ before collapsing back onto the turf.