The man who came over had a turquoise polo and baggy shorts (in September) and carried a pool cue.
‘Why would you read in a pub?’
Ray Perrinelli had expected a question along these lines. He put down his book and said: ‘I’m not actually reading anything. I’m illiterate, the book is just a prop to make myself seem deep and interesting.’
‘So you can’t read at all?’
‘I used to like the Where’s Wally books,’ Ray said. ‘Basically anything with pictures.’
The man with the pool cue nodded to one of his pals. ‘Derm. You must know just about everyone in the town. You ever seen this cocksucker before?’
Ray was in an upscale village pub with a not so upscale clientele. He had picked a booth and leaned against the wall padding: a mistake, because it meant the four lads could slide into the horseshoe seats, blocking him in.
‘Can’t say I have.’ Derm was a big man with a face that looked like it had been surgically flattened. ‘Can’t say I know him.’
The pool cue man picked up his Philip Kerr book and said: ‘Could be you need to find another place to do your drinking.’
The man had offered a clear out, but Ray felt an absurd flash of rage and pride. ‘That’s a damned fucking shame, because I’m actually the Duke of Brudenell, I was hoping to buy this shithole, turn it into a craft winery and have you sweeping up the sawdust in it for the rest of your miserable life.’
Ray had been flung out of bars before, and it always happened fast. Generally, one is manoeuvred very quickly to the door, there’s at least three people involved and you can expect to be propelled by the shoulders and arms. There may or may not be an audience (on this occasion there were groups of mates and couples who offered cheers and ironic applause) there may or may not be fisticuffs or pressure points applied. Then the push into open air.
He kept his feet for a moment, stumbled, fell, hit his head on one of the stone bollards. He came to a second later. The man named Derm offered up his wallet and paperback and disappeared into the pub.
Friday night glimmered cold and patient under the sky’s dead slate. Ray walked down Main Street, which was near deserted, and from a BT phone box he called Nate Kirby, a subversive and fearless and volatile fellow who would commit suicide ten months later. Nate was in the Social with Lexi and Lydia Elton and the gang. Nate had no good news: he said that the Emperor had ordered his dealers to rinse Hyde Park for Ray, and declared an open bounty on his head. Stay out of LS6 for a while, Nate said.
It was not what Ray wanted to hear. His head was pounding, he no doubt looked like hell, and he was sick of this groundhog day of a town. It was mid evening, he didn’t want to go back and face his housemates, but had no likelihood of getting served in his battered and semi-drunk condition.
He sat on the pavement, and lit a cigarette, and after a couple of moments a tall blonde, walking with her friend, came and asked: ‘Are you bleeding?’
Looking back, Ray Perrinelli reflected that the trouble began with ice cream. He had been working on the pitted and troubled estates of Kirkstall, chasing rent and claims as the clouds trailed scarlet ribbons around the towers and roads of the west side skyline. He and Nate had knocked over a scam by a local name, the Ice Man (Ray thought of him as the Emperor, after the Wallace Stevens poem) who had been selling dope and heroin to the Hawkswood estate using a fleet of ice cream vans. Suspicion arose when he had seen the Emperor vans delivering door to door, on a mid evening and in conditions of pinging hailstorm. He and Nate had followed a vehicle to the Emperor’s lockup in Burley Park. They had broken in, stolen the loose cash – three grand each in tens and fives – then turned the drugs over to the police. Arrests and headlines followed.
Ray didn’t mind taking the credit for the arrests, but the estates drew an ominous vibe as that year turned and, from his prison cell, the Emperor promised swift revenge. Ray loved the LS6 autumn, that special tint of time when a new generation entered the city, the new women of Hyde Park… but it would be unwise to hang around the west side with credible death threats hanging over his head.
So he packed up the Volvo, drove east and rented a room in a golf-and-Waitrose homeowner town on the far east side of the city. It was the last place you would have expected to find a degenerate like Ray Perrinelli, and Ray reckoned that he would be safe from the Emperor’s men in Garforth.
The days passed. He slept for a lot of the time: the Kirkstall job had been exhausting. He read a lot, mostly paperback thrillers by Philip Kerr and Peter Straub. He saw little of his housemates, a group of trainee opticians killing time until the opportunities for mortgage, marriage and childrearing presented themselves.
By the fifth day he had slept off the work and developed a familiar restless energy. He woke up too early in the morning and sprinted circuits of the sleeping village. The trainee opticians began to regard him with suspicion, and Ray too became sick of their company.
This woman, Bernardine, was something else. She had, she explained, been on a girls’ night in and had gone out to catch last orders at the town’s only off licence. She took him back to the house and bandaged his head. The girls’ night was at Bernardine’s place, so Ray also had the attention of a gang of colleagues and relatives, women ranging in ages from seventeen to sixty. He drank Kahlua and orange and laughed off a number of suggestions that would have embarrassed a Tenerife stag party.
‘Is there gas here? Can you smell gas?’ asked a lady with thick glasses and barrelly thighs.
‘I don’t smell gas,’ Bernardine said. ‘Can anyone else smell gas?’
‘I just get that kind of artificial smell in the room.’
‘Gas is natural smell, surely,’ Ray offered.
‘Hold still,’ Bernardine told him. ‘No, the leak smell is artificial. It gets added.’
‘Really?’ Ray thought about it. ‘They should maybe vary the odours. Could have like a strawberry scent one, Paco Rabanne. Something good. Particularly as in many circumstances it could be the last smell you ever experience.’
Bernardine invited him to stay and watch Strictly and drink prosecco, but Ray cried off: this woman was the only good person he’d met so far in the town, and he didn’t want to wear out any good impression.
Lunch date was in a steakhouse with a courtyard. The sun was out and they sat outside. Bernardine chatted in a careless flow. Ray was on that first date stage where he had to struggle to listen and understand her speech because he was so distracted by how beautiful she was – long swoosh blonde hair, professional dress, muscular legs and forearms. It stunned him even that she was single – it wasn’t just the beauty, she never had that resigned and helpless feel that some people develop when they’ve been single a long time and don’t want to be. ‘But you were married, right? You must have been.’
‘Oh yeah, I was married straight out of high school. I had two girls – one at college now, the eldest just graduated. First generation of my family ever to go to college, and that means something. The proudest day of my life must have been going up to Scotland to watch Sabrina collect her geology degree.’
‘My tip? Enjoy your free time,’ Ray said. ‘My father told me that nothing beats the freedom of walking down the street and knowing the day’s yours. Even in the best possible relationship, a part of you will really miss being single.’
‘Oh, don’t worry.’ She flapped her hand in a casual way Ray found quite appealing. ‘I’m not into this whole Tinder, speed dating, dick pic nonsense. My friends try to set me up but they’re kind of locked in our professional world and the men in that scene are, well – Are you okay?’
Ray had dived under the table. ‘Is there an ice cream van out there?’
‘Yeah, the Mr Whippy.’
Ray took his seat with relief. ‘Thank gods.’
Bernardine lit a cigarette. ‘Either you have a phobia of ice cream vans or a fetish for sandals. Neither is reassuring.’
‘It’s the ice cream thing.’ Without mentioning his three-grand theft, Ray explained his role in overturning the Emperor’s scam.
‘So you work for the authority? Small world. I run the fraud team in town. Have you just gone AWOL?’
‘Yeah, the bastard’s got a phone in lockdown and has been making calls and generally freaking me out.’
‘So work on the east side for a bit. Burmantofts are looking for a temp benefit guy, I’ll get you an interview.
Ray steepled his fingers and said: ‘You’ve done so much for me already, Bernardine. I don’t want to exhaust your patience.’
Bernardine laughed and drained her wineglass. ‘Don’t worry. It could be that we can help each other.’
Ray went back to work in the east side Burmantofts estate. He kept his head down and watched the streets for ice cream vans. Bernardine picked him up on Stoneyrock Lane and dropped him back at the optical house. They chatted in the Vectra and went out for coffee and drinks. The Garforth women began asking him questions and he realised that he was being vetted and checked out, like some toyboy golddigger, when he was… Jesus, only two years younger than Bernardine, although she seemed like the classical older woman, someone who had achieved things, married and raised children, graduate of a world where people did things. There was one Sunday when they’d actually played golf and were walking back across the park. Bernardine wore a split skirt and cashmere top – she dressed so much better than the other middle aged bosses at the authority, who looked like they put their clothes on with a shovel –and in the park there were a group of lads throwing a frisbee about and eating burgers from a van. The wind came, rode Bernardine’s skirt a little and the lads shouted nasty comments. Just walk away, Bernardine advised, but Ray picked up a dead branch and ran at the boys, roaring demonically, so that they scattered.
‘May your cheeseburgers taste like ashes in your mouth! Like ashes, I say!’ Ray threw the frisbee after them.
‘You’re mad.’ Bernardine had one hand to her cheek. ‘That was really dangerous.’
‘It was funny,’ Ray said.
They copped off on Greek Street after the Light Night event in town, a mad rummage and scramble of kissing, lovemaking from Greek Street to cab to the village. Ray was so drunk and overwhelmed by the idea of having sex with this earthy and realistic and somehow glamorous woman that at first he could barely perform. By the time the clocks went back he had moved in. They ate carefully and made love and got drunk in village pubs and worked out with spinny bikes and kettlebells. Winter sanctifies. Night rolled in fast and there was one point at a houseparty (not the kind of houseparty he was used to: houseparties in Garforth involved kids running around and old people and TV and turbocharged drinking) and the two of them stumbled out for a cigarette and Bernardine said ‘Look!’ and there was snow, big winking discs of it like flower petals. Snowfall gathered in his hair and his drink as Ray gazed up at the sky with too many stars in it and Ray had a premonition – this was it, this is how it happens, this is the moment you fall into the rest of your life. And obviously it was nothing to complain about, you are alive and eating and standing in a free country, and can’t imagine wearying on a physical level or any other with this amazing powerdressed babe. So what’s the problem?
The problem is desire. And desire on the physical level is the least of this. The desire that lives inside curiosity and regret and lost connections. It’s not just the idea of some adulterous spasm in an alleyway (although why not?) it’s the sense of lives unwritten, stories you could have lived running on parallel and crisscrossing tracks like the ghosts of complex train or mono networks in imaginary cities. Ray wasn’t a wise man but he had plenty of intuition, and it was this intuition that convinced him that in the places he walked and worked he picked up on all these thoughts, clicks, fantasies, eruptions, flirtations, the whispering of other lives.
Just after New Year Bernardine’s mother had a stroke. The fraud boss’s distress about this struck Ray as weird, perhaps because he wasn’t as close to his own family, perhaps because he’d only heard Bernardine talk about her mother when she’d mentioned that the ‘Bernardine’ name was the old girl’s idea (the fraud boss hated the name: ‘I mean, you can do something with masculine sounding names, Nigella Lawson, Davina McCall, but when were there any strong female Bernardines?’ Ray had offered Bernardine Dohrn, the American terrorist who was supposed to be beautiful in her day, but she hadn’t got the reference).
So the year kicked off with crying jags and harried phone calls and endless shuttling between hospitals and clinics and family homes. Ray knew this was part of the deal with the rest of your life, you end up dealing with the fallout of the real and true crises, disease and death, and you do it without complaint because that’s gonna be you someday – ‘Hell, that’s the only reason anyone has kids,’ Bernardine had said, in a pensive and almost morbid temper that was really unlike her, ‘so that they have someone to pay for the care home.’ Ray had offered lifts in the Volvo and to generally be around, but the Garforth sisterhood support network kicked in and Bernardine needed the space to deal.
He finished the Friday shift and drove back to Hyde Park. Nate was on the balcony at the Blue Hotel. ‘Raylan! How’s tricks!’
‘Okay. Hiding out in the suburbs.’
‘Yeah, they tell me you’ve embraced the domestic paradise. A kept man for the fraud investigation goddess. Not a bad result.’
‘How are things here?’
Nate rattled off an update on the friendships, feuds, lives and loves of LS6. ‘Oh, and Z got married.’
‘Z St Clare?’ They were talking about a notorious party girl from back in the day who Ray had known and liked but never slept with. ‘When?’
‘Just recently, in London. The guy’s an architect, I heard, and ten years older than her.’ Nate smiled, and raised his glass. ‘Another one gone.’
The younger man looked pale, hadn’t shaved in a while and the clothes, while well put together, hadn’t been changed in a few days – poor Nate, his life six months left to run. Rae and Christian’s ‘Flip the Mic’ played from inside, I knew I had to have her from the day I first met her/Spent the rest of my life writing down ways to get her. ‘Nothing from the Ice Man. His lawyer’s filed an appeal, he’ll have to promise to be good.’
‘Where are you staying?’
‘I thought the Rebound Hotel.’
‘Nah, fuck the Boundary. I’m crashing at this workers’ co-op place in the Cliffs, you should come over.’
Ray figured this would be the typical chaotic Hyde Park squat deal, but the Cliff Co-Op turned out to be a spacious and organised place on the frozen scree of Woodhouse, run by a crew of young artists and activists. Art materials everywhere and dogs running around. Out front, a beautiful dark-haired woman was refilling an elaborate bird table and Ray ambled out and helped her with the seed bags.
‘No problem. Did you make this?’
‘Oh yeah, it doubled as the installation component for my further arts degree.’
Ray smiled. ‘And they say art has no practical value.’
She adjusted her glasses. ‘It may be more trouble than it’s worth, though. You get pigeons and doves showing up at the same time and they just start fighting over the seeds. Squirrels, too.’
‘So it’s like a community cohesion thing,’ Ray said, ‘like having a Wetherspoon’s open across the road.’
They talked on, birds flying off, Ray trying to identify them and she laughing when he got them wrong (George Wheeler, who he’d meet a year later, would have named every bird correctly) and as they talked Ray felt that same tense escalation in his chest that he had experienced when first speaking with Bernardine. Caress, kiss, fuck and marry, kill and die for this beautiful girl! This Georgia was a Hyde Park woman of the kind he was so often attracted to – chunky, confident and talkative with an intelligence that lit up the face.
That night they stayed in, ate vegetarian stodge, drank screwjack wine and smoked some kind of legal high thing Georgia had bought from a headshop on the Corn Exchange. Nate complained that the new drugs did nothing (‘In my day you had pills and coke, and you were happy with that’) a goth called Cynthia sneezed so hard she shot a stud from her nose, almost shattering a plate, but Ray and Georgia bonded over the smoke. (‘THC is horny,’ she whispered to him. ‘The only point of THC is sex.’) Even as they made love in her attic room with the framed prints of Meanwood nature scenes on the walls, Ray was thinking: how old am I going to be before it looks ridiculous chasing these student hipster women, have I reached that point already? The cliché was that you get old but have the desires of a young man. Is it desire that keeps you young? Or are you young because you desire?
In the morning they walked to Popina’s for breakfast. On the way Ray saw an ice cream van pass, but he didn’t panic, it was just a Thornton’s. They ate and chatted over the papers and then Georgia headed, with a fond kiss on his forehead, to an East Street show in town. Ray walked across Woodhouse Moor and hit the Clock for a pint. He read a little more Berlin Noir but a woman at a table across distracted him – not just the tumbly blonde-dark hair or the splendid stockinged legs or the wide Iberian face, it was that something in that harsh beautiful laugh that reminded him of the first woman he’d fallen in love with, when he had first come to this city, and at once he was struck by a deep nostalgia and regret for how it had ended. FFS. Again you’ve been working too hard and drinking too much, and your head is in pieces –
Flutter of goodbyes and the scrape of chairs told him that the laughing woman was on the move. James’s ‘Born of Frustration’ came on the jukebox and Ray finished his drink and hit Headingley Lane and drew a bead on the woman who may or may not be Kallie from back in the day. Following women in the street. Great! He was attached to Bernardine, night at the Picture House planned with Georgia and now stalking the Kallie-alike down onto the dual thoroughfare of Woodhouse Lane, the sun was shining and the women of Hyde Park walked up and down the long drag that cut the Moor in two, talking, texting, dreaming, planning – and if things had worked out, if you married Kallie and lived with her forever, wouldn’t you walk among these women of Hyde Park and nevertheless wonder about the hopes and dreams and secret lives of each and every one of them?
The laughing girl from the Clock took a right turn into the Moor so Ray followed, the sky flawless and even some warmth in the air, kickabouts and skateboards. All this frustration. All this frustration. In the gathering crowd he lost her and wandered, out of habit, into the Brudenell Social. The crowd was mainly young straight lads and old men at this time, a football game on the big screen, the atmosphere in its lethargy almost subterranean… and by the trivia machine, a clusterfuck of twilight LS6ers, reading out the questions and banging the buttons:
‘Which ship was named after the nickname of the witch Nannie Dee in Robert Burns’s 1791 poem Tam o’ Shanter?’
A wrecked-looking man with a rasta hat and a slingbag of burned CDs hesitated and said: ‘Boutros Boutros-Ghali.’
Ray ordered his drink and a kind of hollow peace settled into him, thinking that’s your future, when you’ve chased women and love for all your years and still not got anywhere near the bottom of the mystery.
‘Which two-word name of a chain of holiday villages in the United Kingdom have both words misspelt in British English?’
‘Erm…. Boutros Boutros-Ghali?’
He took his drink out onto the front courtyard. And then that’s it for desire. An ice cream van pulled into the yard, faster than ice cream vans generally move. Two men got out. ‘Are you Ray Perrinelli?’ one of them bellowed.
Ray had never actually met this man, but he recognised the face from photographs. He realised what had happened: the appeal must have been successful, and the Ice Man had been freed from prison. And now here he was.
‘What’s your name, son?’ demanded the Ice Man.
‘Er… Boutros Boutros-Ghali?’
‘Nah, boss, this is definitely him.’ The second man had a bomber jacket, and grey hair spilling from his baseball cap. ‘On the council website.’
‘Where’s my three grand?’
‘I really have no idea.’
The punch knocked his jaw sideways, the balance from his body and the drink from his hand. Ray staggered against a low brick wall, wanting to get out of this situation, but also to communicate a revelation he’d just had, which seemed too good not to share. ‘Listen, lads,’ Ray said. ‘You have to listen to me –‘
But the Ice Man wasn’t in a mood for listening. He knocked Ray Perrinelli to the ground, stomped on his ribs, and might have done some serious damage if the bar managers hadn’t come out and threatened to call the cops. The Emperor and his sidekick scarpered in their ice cream van, leaving Ray sprawled on the courtyard, bleeding and in pain but smiling through the blood, because no one else knew his secret.