Chapter six: The New Merlot
Holdall sat looking out of the window. Evening rain spattered against the glass. Street lights illuminated the rain in shades of grey and orange. There was a tangible silence in the room. The silence of a courtroom awaiting a verdict; the silence of a crowd awaiting a putt across the eighteenth green.
The Chief Superintendent read the latest report on the serial killer investigation, fumbling noiselessly with a pipe. The only light in the room was from the small lamp on the desk, shining down onto the paper which the old man was reading. It cast strange shadows around the room, the old face looked sinister under its curious glare.
Chief Superintendent McMenemy had been on the force for longer than anyone knew, and his presence in the station went beyond domination. 'M' they called him, and no one was quite sure whether it was a joke. There was no Moneypenny, no green baize on the door, but he was a considerable figure. A grumpy old man, much concerned with great matters of state. And perhaps his senior officers liked the implication; if he was M, then they must be James Bond – although in fact, most of them were 003s, the men who mess up and die in the pre-credit sequence of the movie.
He put the pipe to his mouth and sucked on it a couple of times while attacking it with a match, eventually managing to get it going. Tossed the box of matches casually onto the table, looked at Holdall. There was nothing to be read in those dark eyes – Holdall shifted uncomfortably in his seat. Long, unnerving silences, another of his trademarks. He continued to suck quietly on his pipe, finally pointed it at Holdall.
'Well, Robert, what have you got to say for yourself?'
Holdall tried to concentrate on the question. It was a good one. What did he have to say for himself exactly? He couldn't say the truth – that he'd felt like a bloody idiot giving the press conference and had made something up so that he wouldn't look stupid. Apart from anything else, it was destined to make him look even more stupid when he couldn't produce the promised serial killer, and he had to explain that one to the press.
He looked into the massive black holes of M's eyes, wondering what to say. M grunted and picked up the report so that he could toss it back onto the desk.
'You've got the whole country thinking we're just about to collar someone, when as far as I can see we're no nearer making an arrest than we were at the start. What in God's name were you thinking, man?'
Holdall stared at the floor, trying to pull himself together. Be assertive, for God's sake. The one thing the old man hated was a bumbling idiot. Straightened his shoulders, looked him in the eye. Tried to banish the picture of Mrs Holdall brandishing a frying pan, which had inexplicably just come into his head.
'I thought maybe we should try and sound positive for once. We've spent two months coming across as losers, sir. It's about time people started thinking that we've got some balls about us. If we haven't come up with anything in the next few days, we'll have to say that our enquiries in this respect have come to a dead end. But at least we'll look as if we've got some spunk, and that we're putting something into this investigation. Certainly the shit'll be on our shoes the next time someone is murdered, but until then we have to look as if we're getting somewhere.
'We know nothing about this killer, sir. Why he's doing it, what motivates him… It could be that he won't kill again. Who knows? Or it could be that we come up with a lead in the next few days. We need to show some assertiveness. Try to create some momentum.'
He looked into the impassive face, the eyes which hadn't moved from Holdall while he'd talked, the expression of stone. Now M turned his seat round so that it faced the window, and he stared at the night sky, the dull orange reflection in the low clouds. His pipe had gone out and he once more began to fumble with the matches.
Holdall waited for the reaction. The fact that he hadn't immediately exploded was a good sign. He'd half expected to be out of a job already.
Eventually, after several minutes of working the pipe, followed by ruminative smoking, M turned back to Holdall, holding him in his icy stare. He considered his words carefully; when he spoke, he spoke slowly.
'Well, I'm not sure about this, Robert, and I'd rather you'd talked to me about it first. But on reflection, perhaps it wasn't too bad a strategy. Of course, if pieces of dismembered body start turning up in the post tomorrow morning, like confetti at a wedding, then we're in trouble.' He stopped, pointed the pipe. 'You're in trouble.'
He swivelled the chair back so that he was looking out of the window again, showing Holdall his imperious profile. M toyed with his pipe, tapping it on the desk.
'It might be a good idea if you came up with something solid in the next two days, Robert.'
He added nothing and Holdall shifted uncomfortably in his seat wondering if he'd been dismissed. Never rise until you've been told, however, he said to himself.
Finally, M turned, a look of surprise on his face that Holdall was still there.
'That will be all, Chief Inspector.'
Mrs Cemolina Thomson was eighty-five, and lived alone in a twelfth floor flat in Springburn. Smoked eighty cigarettes a day, an obscure brand she'd discovered during the war, containing more tar than the runways at Heathrow; spent her days watching quiz shows on television. Donald Thomson had died when Barney was five years old, and ever since she'd attempted to rule the lives of her children. Her eldest son had long since escaped her clutches, leaving Barney to face the brunt of her domineering personality. Her attitudes had not so much progressed with the century through which she had lived, as regressed to some time between the Dark Ages and the creation of the universe. She was a white, Protestant grandmother with a bad word for everybody.
Barney let himself into the flat, was immediately struck by a smell so rancid it turned his stomach. His first grotesque thought – perhaps his mother had lain dead in the flat for some days, the smell her decomposing body. He steeled himself for the stumble across her rotting flesh, but knew that that wouldn't be it. He had talked to her the night before. Even his mother's crabbed body would not decompose so quickly – certainly not in the damp chill of Scotland in early March.
The first rooms off the hall were bedrooms, and he looked into those to see if she was there. However, as he neared the kitchen, he realised that was where the smell most definitely emanated from. Quickened his pace, burst through the door.
Cemolina stood stirring a huge pot of steaming red liquid, wearing an apron; curlers in her hair. He wondered whether the stench was coming from the pot or from the horrendous stuff women stick in their head when they do a home perm. Decided it was too bad even for that. Must be the pot.
'What the hell are you doing, Mum? That stuff's minging!'
She turned her head. Beads of sweat peppered her face at the effort she was making, her face flushed.
'Hello, Barnabas, how are you? Nearly finished,' she said, turning back to her strange brew.
Visibly wincing, as he always did at the mention of his name, he walked over beside her and looked down into the pot. It was a deep red, thin liquid, bubbling slightly. Up close the stench was almost overwhelming, but Barney did not withdraw.
'What on earth are you making, Mum, for God's sake?'
'What does it look like?' she barked, unhappy at his tone.
'I honestly haven't the faintest idea. What in God's name is it?'
She tutted loudly, bustling some more. 'It's wine, for God's sake, surely you can see that?'
He stared, new understanding, even less comprehension. Maybe that explained it, but he knew nothing about viniculture.
'Is this how you make wine?' he said.
She stopped stirring, looked him hard in the eye, lips pursed, hands drawn to her hips. Nostrils flared. He knew the look, having suffered it for over forty years, and prepared to make his retreat.
'Well, I don't know about anybody else, but it's how I make wine. Now away and sit down, and I'll be with you in a few minutes.'
He nodded meekly, made his exit and closed the door behind him. Glad to escape the kitchen. Went into the sitting room and opened up the windows letting the cold, damp air into the house, clean and refreshing. Stood there for a couple of minutes breathing it in, trying to purge the stench of the kitchen, then withdrew into the room and sat down. Found the snooker on BBC2 and settled back on the settee.
He didn't have long to wait before his mother walked into the room, red-stained apron still wrapped around her, a bustle in her step. Tutted loudly when she saw the open windows, closed them noisily, then sat down to light herself a cigarette. Sucked it deeply, two long draws, then with a shock realised that there was snooker on television.
'For Christ's sake, what are you watching this shite for?
Whose Pants! is on the other channel,' she said, grabbing the remote and changing it over.
Barney rolled his eyes, looked at his mother and thought that he might as well not be there. She sat engrossed in the television, while a variety of celebrity undergarments were brought on and the contestants attempted to identify them from the stains. She had finished her second cigarette by the time the adverts arrived. Lowering the volume, she turned to look at her boy.
'Why are you making wine, Mum?'
Not all questions in life have answers, she thought. 'I didn't have enough sugar to make marmalade,' she said, and pulled hard on her newly lit cigarette. 'So, how are you? You're looking a wee bitty fed up?'
He sat back, staring at the ceiling. Could he talk to his mother? Probably not. He'd never been able to before, so why should he suddenly be able to start now? Mothers aren't for talking to; they're for obeying and running after. At least, that's what his mother was for. Iron hand in iron glove.
'Ach, I'm just a bit cheesed off at work and all that, you know. It's nothing.'
She drew heavily on the cigarette. 'Oh aye, what's the problem?'
'Just they two that I work with, they're really getting to me. Keep taking all my customers, so they do. Pain in the arse, to be quite frank.'
Now Cemolina shook her head. Lips pursed, eyes narrowed. Saw conspiracy. Believed Elvis was abducted by aliens on the instructions of the FBI. 'It doesn't surprise me. Yon Chris Porter. He's a Fenian, isn't he? Can't trust a bloody Tim.'
Barney shook his head. 'No, mum, the other one's just as bad.'
She looked surprised. 'Wullie Henderson? He's a fine lad. Goes to watch the Rangers every week, doesn't he?'
Barney nodded. Felt like he was in the lion's den. Even his mother put great store by football. 'Maybe he does, Mum, but that's not the point.'
'Oh, aye. What is the point, then?'
'I don't know. They take all my customers. Make me look bloody stupid in front of everyone. They're all laughing at me.' He stopped when he realised that he sounded like a stroppy child with a major humph, lip petted, face scowling. Cemolina hadn't noticed. Either that, or she was used to seeing him like this.
'So, what are you going to do about it then?'
Barney stared at the floor, wondering what to say. Felt he had to obey the golden rule of not confessing murderous intent to your mother – notwithstanding the
Norman Bates Exception, when you and your mother are the same person – and his villainous ardour had been partly quashed by Bill's horrified reaction to his nefarious scheme. There was little point in talking to her about it. And who was he fooling anyway? He wasn't about to kill anyone. He was Barney Thomson, sad pathetic barber from Partick. No killer he.
He shrugged his shoulders, mumbling something about there being nothing that he could do. Sounded like a wee boy.
'Why don't you kill them?' she said, drawing forcefully on her cigarette, as far down as she could go.
He stared at her, disbelief rampaging unchecked across his face. 'What did you say?'
'Kill them. Blow their heads off, if they're that much trouble to you. Your old dad used to say, "if someone's getting on your tits, kill the bastard, and they won't get on your tits any more".'
Barney looked at her. Staring at a new woman, someone he'd never seen before. His mother. His own mother was advising him to kill Wullie and Chris. Stern counsel. She couldn't be serious, could she? Was that the kind of thing his father used to say? He remembered him as kind, gentle; distant memories; soft focused, warm sunny summer afternoons.
'D'you mean that?'
She shrugged, lit another cigarette. 'Well, I don't know if they were his exact words, it's been about forty year after all, but it was something like that I'm sure.'
'No, not that. D'you really think that I should kill them? Really?'
'Of course I do. If they're upsetting you that much, do away with them. You've been in yon shop a lot longer than they two heid-the-ba's. You shouldn't let them push you about. Blow their heads off.'
A huge grin began to spread across Barney's face. He had found a conspirator. A confidante in the most unlikely of places.
'I can't believe you're serious.'
'Why not? They're bastards, aren't they? You says so yourself. Especially yon Fenian, Porter.'
She looked sad, downcast. 'I don't know. A good Protestant lad gone wrong.'
Barney gazed upon his mother with wonder. That her mind was now undoubtedly caught in a tangled web of senility was completely lost upon him, so delighted was he to find an enthusiast. He was about to broach the subject of poison, when she realised that the adverts had long since finished. She held up her hand and returned her gaze to the television.
The presenter, an annoying curly-haired man with thick Yorkshire accent, was holding up a gigantic pair of shorts, festooned with numerous revolting stains. A caption at the bottom of the screen gave a choice of four celebrities. The giggling girl, all lipstick and false breasts, partnered by Lionel Blair, pressed the buzzer, giggling some more. 'Pavarotti!' she ejaculated, and with a 'Good guess luv, but not correct this time. A big hand for that try though, ladies and gentlemen', from the presenter, the audience erupted.
And so the show continued for another ten minutes, before with a 'thanks for watching, ladies and gentlemen, please tune in next week when once more it will be time to Name That Stain!', it was over. Cemolina lowered the volume again, turned back to Barney, the look of the easily satisfied on her face.
'So, you're going to blow their heads off?' she said, her look giving a stamp of approval.
Barney stroked his chin in murderous contemplation. 'I was, eh, thinking of poison. D'you know anything about it?'
Cemolina grabbed the arms of the chair, lifting herself up an inch or two. She was a slight woman, but still she presented an imposing figure, especially to the weak son.
'Poison!' she shrieked. 'Poison, did I hear you say?'
Barney flummoxed about in his seat for a second, a landed fish. Recovered his composure enough to speak, although not enough to stop himself looking like a flapping haddock.
'What's wrong with poison?'
Her head shook like a tent in the wind. 'It's womany for a start. You'd have to be a big jessie to want to poison somebody. Did I bring you up as a girl? Well, did I?'
'No, mum,' he said.
'No, you're damned right I didn't. Act like a man, for pity's sake. You've got to give it laldie, Barney, none of this poison keich. Blow their heads off. Carpet the floor with their brains. Or get a hammer and smash their heads to smithereens.'
'Mum!' There was a growing look of incredulity on his face, horror in his voice. He had long known that everyone had their dark half, but he'd never really thought that everyone included his own mother.
Cemolina looked aghast. 'You want them dead, don't you? You says so yourself, so what are you blethering about?'
'Aye, aye, I do, but something simple. I don't like mess.'
She screwed up her face, waved a desultory hand. 'Well, I didn't think you'd be that much of a big poof. I just thought that if you were going to do it, you might as well have some fun while you're about it.'
Barney looked at his mother with some distaste. Maybe she was mad. But then, it had been him who'd been thinking about killing them in the first place. She had merely added some enthusiasm to the project.
'Ach, I don't know, mother. I'll have to think about it. I certainly don't think that I could beat anybody's head to a pulp.'
She scowled at him and turned her attention back to the television to see which quiz show would be on next.
'I cannot believe you're being such a big jessie. Your father would've been black affronted, so he would,' she said, turning the volume back up. 'Black affronted.'
'Yes, mum,' said Barney.
He couldn't do it. Not anything violent. He knew he couldn't. Perhaps, however, he could get someone else to do it for him. A hired hand. There was a thought. And as the opening strains of
Give Us A Disease started up, he sank further into the soft folds of the settee and lost himself in barbaric contemplations.
Wednesday - chapter seven: A Pair Of Breasts
The Long Midnight of Barney Thomson - collected chapters
Meet the author: Douglas Lindsay