The black car squatted on Stockwell Road. Billy Vehement clocked it on his way back from Brixton tube station. The regular gang gathered outside the Portuguese delicatessen across the road from his flat, swapping jokes over bottles of Super Bock. Traffic tore up the tarmac beside them; a rogue gull dawdled over the skating park. Billy could only focus on the car. It looked like something from another world: old, stately and sleek, with one tyre hitched up on the kerb, like a show dog cocking its leg.
Late summer, mid-afternoon. Billy had attended an audition earlier in the day, for the part of a crazy comedy chef in an insurance advert. A nothing job, but it would see him through winter. A few steps closer to the car and he could make out a tall, balding, male figure seated on the back seat, visible through the rear glass. A ping sounded lazily on Billy's radar. He headed towards his front door. He hadn't reached the first step when the soft sound of knuckles on the window, soon followed by the electric whine of powered windows.
The voice echoed back at him from - what was it now? - three, four years. The cut-glass affectation. Billy's stomach had actually soured. He turned to see Peter Priest smiling at him from an interior of cappuccino leather.
'I hoped we had the right address.' He pointed behind Billy, at the house beyond, 122 Stockwell Road. 'That's your place isn't it.'
I know where you live.
'Pedy. Long time no see. New wheels?'
'She's beautiful isn't she?' The old man smiled. Imagine a hawk regurgitating a desiccated mouse. 'I've always wanted a Bentley. My birthday treat for myself. A friend of a friend does some renovation of old models. The engine purrs. Why don't you step inside and we can have a chat?'
'I don't know...'
Billy made a move towards the step of 122, but his step failed under the power of Peter Priest, dark star, black hole.
'Come on Billy.' Pedy chided, implored. He cracked open the door. 'Have a seat.'
Billy bent inside the car, and shut the door behind him. Up close, he could take in Pedy's outfit. Beige linen trousers, a blue shirt with thin white stripes, a silk handkerchief in the breast pocket matching a burgundy pair of socks. A panama hat lay on the seat between them, resting next to a creased up copy of The Times.
When Billy had first met Pedy, the old man had sported tweed jackets and red polo-necks, car coats with tweed trilbies. Call it bookie chic. These days, he wouldn't look out of place in the queue at Lords. You'd never know that once upon a time he'd been one of the most notorious schlock film makers in the country.
'What's this about, Pedy?'
'Fancy a little spin?'
'Sure I can't tempt you? Maybe we could get out of the city, take in a pub meal? My treat.'
'I don't think so.' Billy couldn't take his eyes off the panama hat.
'Well, I was going to say how good it is to see you,' Pedy said, returning to the charm. 'You're looking well. Don't you think he's looking well, Clyde?'
Up until this moment, the driver had sat silently in front of them, staring out ahead of him into Stockwell road. He turned, offered Billy a glance of sharp grey eyes. 'He looks very well, Mr. Priest.' Early fifties. Accent hard to trace, probably one of Pedy's West London collective. Perhaps a down-on-his-luck foot-soldier from The Old Days.
'This is Clyde,' Pedy said. 'He helps me out now and then. I don't like to drive too far these days. And Clyde is a man of talents, shall we say.' He held Billy's gaze, like he was trying to make him jealous. Look Billy, look how you've been replaced. 'But you do look well.'
'Yeah, well. I try to stay fit.' He spoke without looking Pedy in the eye. 'Walk instead of taking the bus. Press ups. Fresh fruit, olive oil...' The sentiment drifted when he realised he might have been spouting the tag line for a margarine advert he'd tried out for the previous month. '... blended with fresh organic milk, and a touch of Sicilian sunshine.' No, he hadn't landed that job either.
'It's important for an actor,' Pedy agreed. 'The rough physicality of the profession demands it. An out of shape actor is good for nothing. I've always maintained that. You are still acting, I take it?'
'Keeps me honest.'
The old man's film career had started in the late sixties with a few coy stripping films, but when the seventies hit, he got nasty with Tippy Takes A Trip. The title, trailer and poster drew you into a hippy-dippy sex comedy, but, by the final reel, the action went about charting where free love edged into serial murder. Blue Sisters, Dolores and the Whip, Help Me Hold Madeleine Down: the films had crawled through the cinemas over the next fifteen years, infamous for their grubby blend of sex, violence and English repression, their aesthetic something like mopping an abattoir floor with a copy of The Daily Mail.
Pedy had first employed Billy as a runner, factotum, but, eventually, as an actor. Billy's first roles had been in Pedy's later films, as a gaunt and gangly sixteen year old. He played an assortment of delivery boys, milkman's assistants, and street cleaners: wise-cracking witnesses to awful events. Pedy had liked Billy because he appeared more knowing than the usual child actors, his delivery tinged with a degree of terrible experience. 'I see a lot of me in you,' the old man had said. He never missed a chance to make your skin crawl.
'Oh, I never met an honest actor,' Pedy went on. 'You're all liars and charlatans. You're all confidence tricksters and agents.' He grinned, his teeth horsey and unreal. 'Are you still using that ridiculous nom-de-guerre?' He shook his head. 'Billy Vehement. I mean...'
'I remember it as you asking me to change my name.'
'You don't live in an alias, Billy.' He wagged a finger, as though Billy had just launched a stone through his greenhouse. 'Inhabit a fiction and soon it will inhabit you. You'll rub yourself out, disappear. That is, if you haven't disappeared already.' He fixed Billy with his gaze, and something mournful washed through his features. 'My god. Young Billy. Looking at you makes me feel old. Where did those good days go?'
Billy began to head him off –which days were those?— but Pedy interrupted. 'I know what you'll say. You've grown beyond me, you want to put the old days behind you. I know all that. But we've been fighting different battles in the same way, that's the way I always think of us. Of you.'
He shook his head, rested his chin on his thumb, the old ham. Billy had seen the same look and pose on the back cover of his memoir, The Pedy Files. Yes. Of course he knew.
'Oh England,' he murmured, and Billy felt a little fist clench inside. 'I won't lie to you, I'm depressed at the state of the country, Billy. If it wasn't bad enough that we've had a decade of socialists in power, now there's a one-eyed jock in Number 10. I always felt that little Blair was bad enough, but as for Gordon Brown....' He spat out a sound, part gasp, part oath and picked up the copy of The Times from the seat between them, flapping it into Billy's line of sight. 'And did you read this? Russians killing each other on the streets of London.'
'Must have passed me by.'
'Gangsters, the lot of them,' Pedy rasped. 'I remember you once telling me they'd gone away. But they never go away.' He shook his head, smirking. 'Oh those Russians.'
One of the reasons that their meetings had levelled off over the past, oh, twenty years, was that Pedy existed in a world where free society was forever being prodded down the road to serfdom, where Harold Wilson had been a Communist stooge, where the fall of the Berlin Wall, Perestroika, had been one long confidence trick designed to lull the Western world into a false sense of security.
'Did you really drop by just to talk about old times?'
Pedy only scowled and shrugged, as though taking umbrage at Billy steering him away from the truly important facts of the matter. 'Well, yes. All right. I have a favour to ask. Just a little favour. It's a bit embarrassing really, and probably nothing to worry about.'
'I want you to find someone for me. An... associate of mine. He lives around here, which is why I thought of you.'
He fiddled around in his inside pocket, producing a creased photograph and passed it over. The picture showed a young man with longish black hair, and thin, pale features, sitting opposite Pedy at a pub table, both of them posing awkwardly.
'Who is he?'
'A film maker. Well, an aspiring one. It's another reason I thought of you. A chap by the name of Felix Link.'
'Never heard of him.'
'Too bad. I really think he has some talent.' He cleared his throat, picked lint from the crease of his trousers, examined his nails. Ham business. But there was something else beneath this surface. Anxiety, maybe? Guilt? 'He's become something of a protégé of mine.'
Here. We. Go. 'What did you get him into?'
'Oh nothing like that. Honest Injun. Don't be so suspicious.' He mimed an X on his heart. 'No, he approached me. At a festival screening. I did a little Q&A- quite a good turnout too, I was disappointed not to see you there - and young Felix approached me in the bar. You know what I sucker I've always been for a fan...'
'Anyway. We stayed in touch. I'd talk to him now and then. He appreciated a bit of advice from an old campaigner. Basically, about scaring up money. I think he'd run himself dry, which happens of course, but he was desperate to push through the film. I experienced something similar myself more than once. He had this kind of zeal about him, which I've only ever seen once or twice before. Some of it was set around here. He used some local actors. Again, I thought of you. Et-cet-er-ah.'
'What was he working on?'
'Ah. Something right up your street.' Pedy grinned. 'It was a spy film. I think he thought of it as something more than that, actually. Sounded a bit arty for my tastes, really, but the chap certainly knew what he wanted to do. I did find him quite impressive.'
Again, Billy got the feeling that Pedy was trying to make him jealous. 'So why do you want to find him?'
'His girlfriend got in touch with me. It seems that he's disappeared. I wouldn't have given it much credence, young love and all that. But I've tried contacting him myself, and we had an appointment with a producer friend of mine. More of the same, really: me showing him how things used to be done, but it was the kind of thing I can't imagine him missing.'
'How long has he been gone?'
'A month now, I'd say. I'll give you the girlfriend's number. She works for that Stalinist swine of a mayor.'
'Felix worked with an actor from around here too. By the name of Alex Hammond, I think. I thought you might know of him.'
'Never heard of him. But I can ask around.'
Pedy's eyes glinted like gin in a glass. 'I'd be grateful if you would, Billy. This is your home, these days. You know how to navigate it. I'm old enough to remember the old Brixton, and can you blame me if I don't like what it has become?'
Out on the street, a one-armed Portuguese man who Billy recognized as one of the local homeless sat on the pavement near a delicatessen. He'd pulled a litter bin away from a lamp-post, and sat, leafing through the remains of chicken takeaways and sweet wrappers, laying them about him in a circle. Pedy's gaze roamed over to him, and he shook his head.
'Look at these people.' When he turned to Billy, his features were suddenly bright and fierce. 'You know, a young girl asked me for money the other day, outside of South Ken tube. I handed over a fiver, feeling quite sorry for her.' He paused, licked his lips. 'Turns out she was working undercover for The News of the World. Can you imagine how I felt? I'd give money to many people, but never a journalist.'
The old man cleared his throat. 'So anyway. Off you trot.' He leaned across Billy, opened the door. 'I'm grateful for you helping me, Billy. Don't forget your Uncle Peter. You know he's never forgotten you.'