Saturday, December 22, 2012


It 's Christmas Eve. God's in the air. Thomas Fastnet doesn't believe in Him.  His brother Chris does. They are good friends and argue at length but amicably.

Thomas says: "Why do you think that  this world and its inhabitants are important enough to receive divine attention? Of the millions of possible worlds, circling millions of stars in millions of galaxies, why this one? And if this one, why is it in such a mess?

"The world is God's. The mess is ours."

Again Thomas says: "Let's get it in perspective. The universe is 13.8 millions years old, the Earth three and half billion. We've been around for 200,000 years.  Crocodiles and ants, fish  and dinosaurs for much longer. The  whole lot is supposed to have started with a bang, from a pinpoint. How can apes like us, clearly bent on self-destruction, matter in the scheme of things?"

The big bang theory may be true but that doesn't mean that it didn't have a cause. There can be no effect without cause. Something must have created your bang. Yes or No?

And so it goes on.  Chris opens a bottle of Madeira, sercial, the dry stuff. They savour it together. Chris's small children are asleep upstairs.  Or supposed to be. Empty stockings  hang at the ends of their beds.  And their heads are buzzing with speculation and mystery. They are awake and whispering.  Chris's wife Pat and Thomas' wife Alison are at Midnight Mass at St Nicholas just round the corner from the house. If they listen carefully they can hear voices, "Hark the herald angels sing..."

"Where's peace? Where's goodwill?  Where's the justice? Just endless fighting over frontiers and tribal differences.

"Perhaps," says Chris, "justice and peace are in the balance of chemical elements in the universe which makes life and this conversation possible. Something of a miracle in itself.  Or one almost achieved.

On that they seem to agree. And so they talk on with long companionable pauses in which the fire mutters in sympathy, until the quiet is  suddenly disturbed. With a popping sound, the  Christmas tree lights go out. In the dark the church clock chimes midnight. When Chris restores the fuse they see that the star on top of the tree is no longer alight. The  bulb inside the  plastic casing has blown. "A surge of current," says Chris.

"Or divine disapproval of my views?" says Thomas.  "Or the state of the world?"

"Chris goes into the kitchen and brings another bottle. They drink in silence.

Outside,  gravel crunches under foot, voices and... "I thought I heard a baby cry," Chris says, and gets to his feet.  The sound of a key in the lock. The front door opens and into the room comes Pat and Alison, and in Pat's arms indeed is a baby wrapped up against the cold. "It's the Vicar's," she says. Her husband broke his ankle. Fell off a ladder trying to fix the lights which fused. At midnight would you believe it! Vicar's seeing him to the hospital. We're looking after the baby till she gets back. Jesse is his name." 

The baby looks  solemnly about him. He has that superior look of very young babies which seems to say, "I know more than you do".  She holds him up to show him the Christmas tree lights. He gurgles, wide awake now. He enjoys the attention.

Thomas, who has no children of his own, on an impulse, takes Jesse from her and raises him in the air. He jiggles him up and down. Baby and man catch each other's eye. In a moment of understanding they both laugh.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

The Stalker

"Move over Dermot. You're occupying my space"
London underground trains do not lend themselves to social niceties. Passengers avoid each others' eyes. In the rush hour, you shrink into yourself to minimise physical contact. The man sitting next to me, apart from accusing me wrongly of taking more than my fair share of space on the seat which we share, overflows liberally. His bum bulges and his elbow digs into my side. And now to make it worse he is talking to me.  Reluctantly I turn towards him.  Though he has obviously recognised me, I have no idea who he is.
"Another novel on the stocks, I suppose?"
For a moment I am flattered. I am not the sort of writer who seeks publicity, but confirmation that a stranger  knows your work, can sometimes ease discomfort. Not  this time. My neighbour is unsavoury as well as presumptuous. "Name's Shadwell," he says, "Tony Shadwell". Feeling as though I had been kicked in the stomach, I turn towards him. I sense some sort of bad joke. Tony Shadwell is a character in my last published novel and in the one which preceded it. A mean and ingratiating inhabitant of the corner of London where it is set. He makes a living by spying on people in public life and selling information to any one who will pay for it. He is a blackmailer and persecutor of women.  Much of the dirt he gleans turn up on the Internet, or worse specifically in the hands of hostile foreign powers.
"So you recognise me?"
" I suppose I should  be flattered," I say,  that you want to  enter into the spirit of  two of my books. The only thing is, your shoes are wrong, cheap and unpolished; that brand of wrist watch is not right for  Shadwell - he wouldn't wear a Swatch - and you have fat, pudgy hands, instead of sneaky, bony hands"

He laughs. He has a particularly unpleasant laugh. Something I recognise and have attempted to describe, though my description does not match the vomit-inducing, staccato snicker I now hear.
What is this? The beginning of some sort of blackmail attempt? Or an even even more sinister threat? The threat of mischief?  I think about my enemies. Who would resort to such a weird trick? And why?

The next stop is Charing Cross where I get out. Will he follow me? I stand up and leave the train without looking behind me. As I follow the familiar route of brightly lit tunnels and moving staircases which lead to the main line station, I persist in keeping my eyes in front of me. The Hastings train is waiting  on Platform 6 and I make straight for the barrier. Even when I enter a carriage half way to the front I refrain from looking back. Relieved I sit down. But my relief is short-lived.

As the train  leaves the station a body thuds into the seat beside me. Making use of its bulk it edges me to  one side. No question  now that I am being pursued by a persistent and sinister stalker. "Not going to greet me, Dermot? I am yours after all, Mr Dermot Frankenstein, your very own handiwork. I now have  a life of my own;  and, I don't mind saying, with rights and in particular the right of self-determination."

"I hope you are enjoying the joke" I say.

"What joke? The crime writer Dermot Martin has responsibilities, like a father for his children. Like a bitch for her pups. Jokes don't come into it. "

"What do you want?"

"What would you want in my place, Dermot? OK, I'll tell you what I want. I want respectability. I want to be ordinary, dull, banal, a bit  like you Dermot. And  I want to be looked up to at least  by a few people. To put it at its simplest, I want to be loved."

I fall for this. "But in that case you would be someone else. The person  in my books has no outwardly attractive qualities . He is a bastard, a liar, a thief and a bully. It is too late to change that. And you, meanwhile " I add to make it clear that I am  not myself nutcase enough to take my stalker seriously, "you are a nut case."

"But you could, if you wanted to, change me. You have already featured  me in two novels. Your Shadwell is a wanker but not a wally".  The stalker  is bright enough to come to terms with his weak and evil side, to pull himself up, brush himself down. "I suspect that I am already in the plot of  the next  book unwinding in your predictable, little brain. You could plunder your imagination for a change  to show a deeper side to my character, one ready to be rescued, to be redeemed..."

Please don't talk to me any more," I say looking out of the window. "I'm thinking." I am not  thinking. My mind is a blank. But may be  the belief that I am thinking will keep him quiet. Even encourage him to leave the train at the next station.  Some hope. My character lives in South East London in a flat above a seedy shop on a street corner.

From Hastings station it is a short walk  through a street of Victorian houses to my house. I walk quickly and don't look back. "Give me a few minutes" I say to my wife". I know there is a drink waiting and a meal in the oven, but I have a  chore before I can relax. From my study window I can see the street below and sure enough there is Shadwell leaning against a wall under a street lamp just flickering into life. At my desk I begin to type right away what is in my mind.

 '"Come with me," said Lorraine taking Shadwell's arm. She smelt of violets, Her blond  hair brushed his cheek.  Surprised he followed her. It was a new experience  for him to meet a willing partner. And the woman who called herself  Lorraine Price was  to his fevered mind something out of the ordinary. Carpe diem. The pick-up ruse had worked. The man  may have been cunning, coniving and and dangerous, but vanity drove caution out of the window. They left the pub together. "I'm staying here," she said, indicating a small private hotel. Looking over her shoulder she led him upstairs, unlocked the door of her room, and ushered him in. "Make yourself comfortable, " she said, "I won't be a minute" , and  disappeared into  the en suite bathroom. There, opening her hand bag she produced a syringe which she expertly loaded, holding it up for a moment to the light.  Hiding it behind her back she returned to find Shadwell as she had hoped naked and on the bed. "Ah," she said approaching him as though to negotiate an embrace, but instead plunged the syringe into his left buttock ..."That will settle you."'

Would that do at least for the moment?  Some polishing perhaps but positive enough. I looked out of the window to find that Shadwell was no longer in evidence.