1. She Ain’t Curvy She’s My Mother
Jamie Parkes heard gasps in the newsroom. He dared not look over his shoulder. His story on Larna Wilson sleeping with the young Prince was bigger than a nuclear bomb going off in London. No, it was. Don’t hold the front page, you wimps.
He looked deep into the city from the 21st floor. Only if someone plunged from this gleaming glass tower was he interested. The gasps got louder. Jamie reluctantly walked over to the closest plasma screen which had sub-editors Jenny, Pete and Leo stood around it, huddled together, eyes raised, a solitary hand across the mouth. Even Warren Fitton, the 31-year-old editor, was out there, perched on the corner of newsdesk, hands behind his neck, blue-rimmed glasses, braces so tight they were about to snap. Jamie stopped a few feet behind his three colleagues and looked up at the screen. Was that a plane flying into a tower? Jamie was briefed by Jenny. A terrorist attack? What would happen to his splash now? Jamie took off his waistcoat and blew down his chest. He could see Fitton walking across to the centre of the newsroom, palms together, index fingers on lips, eyes darting out of the glass windows.
‘Okay ponies, red top turns to black,’ said Fitton. ‘Time to get serious.’
There was a hush of silence across the newsroom. Jamie looked at his colleagues and then burst out laughing.
‘Fuck that for a game for soldiers,’ he said.
Jamie walked back to his desk and heard most of the newsroom behind him joining in the laughter. He felt as tall as the tower he occupied.
Jamie was sat in Pub A looking at black and white photos of Lenny Calvin’s leaving party. The retired district reporter had passed his treasured contacts book to Jamie after 35 years of service. Jamie was finally about to find out what the fuss was about: Callum Gordon, the PI, SA (Search Agent), Blagger or Pinger, was about to call him – and give him the keys to the gold mine.
Jamie popped a handful of Skittles into his bottle of Grolsch. He took a swig and savoured the tangy sweets shrinking in his mouth. He glanced up at the pictures on the pub wall: Alexander Graham Bell, Busby the bird and Sam Spade. The picture of Bogart made Jamie want to put a fag in his mouth.
‘That other number you were trying to track down,’ said Gordon, speaking from a noisy train platform. ‘Your bird or something?
‘It’s private, mate. Have you got it?’
There was a long pause and then a sigh.
‘Come back in three months. Requests for my services have gone through the roof…
‘This morning. Regards, Callum Gordon.’
‘Hold your horses, what about voicemail? Lenny Calvin’s a good mate of mine. He said you like Don Diego’s. I’ll get you a few more packs.’
Gordon took a deep breath. Jamie had initially wanted his ex-girlfriend Gemma Bamford’s number but now he sensed he was about to get more; much more. Gordon spoke for half a minute and then hung up. Jamie finished off his bottle of Grolsch and threw his smudgy Nokia on the table. He swivelled it around with his fingers like a spinning top. He grinned and tapped in a number followed by a one-digit number and then, when prompted, a security code, four digits long. Viva La Vodafone. He pulled out his notebook and raised the phone to his ear. He grabbed his pen and concentrated hard for shorthand mode: eyes down, deep breath, steady without squiggles. But as he scented treasure, he was distracted by a woman crying near the bar area. She was almost hysterical. He never liked Pub A, always too noisy. He cut off the call and put the mobile down. It rang immediately.
‘Leg it down to Shepherd’s Bush,’ said Danny Love, the news editor. ‘Man lost his brother in the TT attacks.’
‘But I’m just about nail Miss Wilson…’
‘Hurry up. Get a pic of the dead guy too. Oh, one more thing…
‘That bent fireman, he said you made up the quotes…’
‘Nah, dodgy subs put some salt on it. They just can’t leave stuff alone.’
‘Get to the Bush, now.’
Danny hung up. Jamie went to the bar to order another bottle of Grolsch. He threw more Skittles into it and knocked back as many swigs as he could. He flicked back his notebook to look for the shorthand notes on Leyton Stubbs, the fireman with the hot story. They were unreadable. He glanced up at the crying woman by the bar – and left Pub A.
Jamie got off the Metropolitan Line at Amersham at 10.07pm. The death knock with the TT man hadn’t gone well: the victim’s brother shouted ‘hope your editor gets cancer’ through the toilet window. Jamie came back after hiring a ladder from a window cleaner (it took a couple of hours) and climbed up it in an effort to talk to the man on the same level. He could hear the man being sick in the sink. The man still didn’t respond but Jamie took some pictures through the window with his dicky camera.
Jamie was glad to get home and leave the filthy carriages and big city-claustrophobia behind. He stepped out at Amersham station and nipped into Santhi restaurant for a takeaway. A few minutes later, he was in Stanley Hill, fumbling with his keys while his mouth watered with desires of shit-kicking, electric curries. He stepped into the house and could already tell his mother was in the kitchen: radio too loud, singing off key, flimsy door wide open. He walked in and placed the takeaway bag on the kitchen table. His mother was wearing an Afro wig and dancing to Michael Jackson’s Wanna Be Starting Something. There was a full bottle of gin and a half-open packet of painkillers by its side. Jamie walked over to the radio and turned the volume down.
‘Get a grip, mum,’ said Jamie. ‘Have you finished my packing?
‘This wig’s better than chemo; warms me up, good and proper. Where did you get it from?’
‘A tribute band wanted a write-up.’
Jamie walked over to the kitchen table and started to unpack the takeaway.
‘When are you getting my story in?’ asked Tina.
‘Massive attack in America. You’ll have to wait now.’
‘Sorry, I’m listening to Michael. Are they doing well in America?
‘Not the band, mum, the twin towers; they’ve been attacked by terrorists.’ Jamie looked up at his mother and shook his head. He walked over to her and took the Afro wig off her head. ‘I know you hate the news, but it pays to keep up sometimes.’
Tina straightened her short, spiky blonde hair and fastened the top button on her blouse. She poured a glass of gin and started drinking it through a straw.
‘Did you call Gemma?’ she asked, grimacing and holding her jaw.
Jamie grabbed a fork and sat down at the kitchen table to eat his takeaway.
‘Well, did you?’
‘No wonder she dumped you; language like that.’ She put the glass down and walked over to the table to pick up the wig again. She felt it between her fingers. ‘I’d have understood if they played the race card more often.’
‘Has your boss got back to you yet?’
‘Forget him. What about the story?’
‘Like I said the terrorist attacks are going to dominate. Anyway, what can we write? ‘Boss asks female worker for sex to drop case.’
‘Sounds right to me. I’ve even wrote it down for you.’ She turned and walked towards the fridge, picking up a notepad and pen from the top of it. She came back and dipped her fingers into Jamie’s Bengal Chicken Massala before licking them and sitting down at the kitchen table. She flicked over to the relevant page and started reading out aloud.
‘Headline: Randy MD molested woman in office after she refused sex over wine drama.’ She paused and looked up at Jamie. ‘What do you think so far?’
Jamie didn’t answer and carried on eating.
‘Mr Jack Barnstable, 58, was accused of sexually harassing Ms Tina Graves while the duo were discussing the theft of six bottles of wine at the head office of the Off Licence chain…’ Tina paused and mimicked drinking a wine bottle. ‘…Barnstable’s is a popular off-licence chain throughout the country but it may not be for long because boss Jack Barnstable is a rude man who tried to grope Ms Graves’ bottom…’
‘Stop right there. Makes me sick hearing about it.’ Jamie got his dictaphone out and slid across the table to his mother. ‘Tape it. I need some space.’ He picked up his takeaway and headed towards the door. ‘Should have taken him to tribunal, anyway. He accused you of stealing the wine, for god’s sake.’
‘Missed the boat didn’t I? Only had three months after I complained. He said I could keep my job so I let things drift. Please get the story in, Jamie, I’ll use my maiden name too. No-one’ll notice.’
Jamie opened the door and walked down into the hallway.
‘You’ve been all different since you broke up with Gemma,’ said Tina, clutching her jaw as she raised her voice. ‘What did you move back here for? You should have stayed in London.’
Jamie ran up the stairs and wondered if his mother was right about his flip-flopping. A firm denial was the answer. He wasn’t happy in London, Amersham or anywhere else; only the newsroom.
Jamie placed his contacts book, dictaphone and mobile phone on the bedside table. He looked around the tidy room and was grateful for his mother’s standards; the rooms in London had been filthy. Nikki was slack with the laundry rota and Rob left dirty plates in the sink. Jamie admitted he had slipped on occasion too, particularly when the microwave wasn’t repaired quickly enough, but his hours were more challenging: Nikki was a budding actress and Rob was a teaching assistant; case closed. He smiled as he looked at his fax machine, black speakers, classic red rotary dial phone and Joytel phone recorder. The news lab was still intact.
Jamie could see the musty, yellow-tinged tabloids neatly piled high by the wardrobe. He picked up the whole batch and placed them onto the bed. He took off his River Island suit and kicked off his shoes. He sat up on the bed and picked out the newspaper with a pink wallet of photos popping out of the side. It was marked ‘Lido De Jesolo’. He opened it and enjoyed all the photos he wasn’t in. In one, Gemma was eating breakfast in the hotel. Jamie liked the shape of her mouth and her poppy-coloured nail varnish. He wanted to call her immediately but knew he would have to wait for Gordon. God knows which animal she was cavorting with now.
Jamie browsed through the papers. He smiled when his byline appeared at the top of a story but there were no splashes. He got more annoyed as another paper went by. He was tired but ploughed on until the early hours. At times, he did wonder whether he should tune into the news or watch Lock Stock and Snatch again, but he was too lazy to get up from his bed. Jamie put the paper down and looked at the photos again: one of Gemma holding a pool cue bending over a table to take a shot; one of her in a bikini by a pool supping a cocktail; one of her giving two-fingers to Jamie outside the hotel; one of her leaning on the hotel balcony wrapped in nothing but a bed blanket. He straightened his curtain-style hair and got out his mobile. He tapped in Larna Wilson’s number and leaned back, still looking down at the photos of Gemma. He didn’t expect her to answer and the phone eventually went into voicemail. He tapped in ‘9’ and was asked for a security code; he tapped in ‘3333’. He reached over to one of his huge speakers, on the bedside table, and connected the phone with one of the wires. He laid the mobile carefully on the bed by the photos and looked down. He took a deep breath and slipped his hand down his trousers.
‘Pick up, if you’re there,’ said the unmistakable voice of the young Prince. ‘I want to suck your nipples so much I’d enrol with the anti-monarchists. Give me some cream.’
Jamie looked down at the photos of Gemma but could only see Larna. He closed his eyes and started masturbating.
‘There’s a do in Kensington tomorrow, can you make, Lar Lar? Need to some minty muff, now.’
How many messages were there? Six, eight? Jamie had lost count. There was one from Larna’s sister – and one from a charity – but the rest were from the Prince.
‘You’re the only active service I need. A red carpet rogering for Lar Lar if she doesn’t call back.’
Jamie looked up at the ceiling and disturbed the photos with his damp, wandering leg. He closed his eyes and smiled. This was the only splash that mattered.