The Meal Of Fortune
Every Thursday, every last single Thursday, the music would start up in his head. And even before he got to the front door he’d be dancing inside. Already out of the car, the little girl would be running up the path, one hand tucking hair behind her ear, the other clutching the bag filled with a week’s worth of things to show him.
She’d always be laughing.
And the music? Well it would be that year’s big feel-good summer hit or some long forgotten guilty pleasure with too much synth bass and cheesy samples. Maybe even something a little closer to home. It didn’t matter; it always got him dancing inside.
And every Thursday the little girl would sit up at the kitchen counter to do the homework her mother had so thoughtfully saved up for her one night with Daddy. Still, a little help here and there and they soon had it out of the way. Then it would be time for the bag to reveal its contents. Sometimes one by one, more often all at the same time. Pictures she’d drawn and other random (and often unidentifiable) works of art. Stickers (what was it with kids and stickers?) and other little bits and bobs she’d bought or collected along the way. Dermot would laugh and smile while he made beans on toast. And yes, it was always beans on toast. Because Thursday was her night and it was her favourite.
At bedtime “just one more story” ended up as three or four as he eked out the last of their time together. Their record was eight.
And all evening the music would be playing as the dance went on inside his head. Shaking, twisting and jiving. Sometimes a little breakdance or even… Well, even the disco strut.
As a younger man he’d got away with real dancing. A few steps here, a spin or two there, maybe the odd little whoop. Embarrassing to think about it now (especially the whooping) but it was amazing the allowances people made when you were young and they wanted a piece of you.
He’d learned long ago to keep it inside. The music, the dancing, and a few other things besides.
“The train will soon be arriving in London Euston…”
Dermot slipped out of his daydream to find the green of the countryside had given way to the dirty greys and browns of the city he’d always called home. So why did home feel like it was 500 miles behind him, with an eight-year-old who still called him Daddy?
And how exactly were Thursday nights supposed to work now Molly‘s mum had taken her to live with a man called Wayne?
In fucking Scotland.
No wonder the music in his head didn’t play anymore.
With the train journey behind him, there were plenty of reasons for Dermot to end up in the King’s Arms that afternoon; all of them were sound enough. He was a regular, for one. It was only a short cab ride from Euston station and technically Soho was on his way home too. But really he just needed a little quiet and a little time. The King’s Arms, with its post-lunch lull, could be relied on to provide both. Today, though, it just felt joyless and empty.
Not that Dermot had any particular beef with the place or its people. But surely the distance was enough reason to block his ex-wife’s move? His lawyer thought not, though she’d had enough courtesy to pretend to mull over the question before shaking her head. Enough courtesy to charge him for the privilege too.
He drained his first beer and considered leaving. Then he waved to the barman for another as he thought back over the trip.
Sarah’s phone call had been the start of it.
“Erm, you see thing is…”
There was always something with Sarah. This time it was the revelation that she wouldn’t now be bringing Molly down to stay with Dermot for half-term as planned.
A work deadline was the best excuse she could find.
“I’m sure you understand.”
Well, no actually.
Of course, he was quite welcome to come and maybe take Molly down to Edinburgh for a few days.
Of course he was.
It was an easy enough offer for her to make, safe in the knowledge that he’d never be able to get away at such short notice.
This time she’d be wrong.
“Great, when shall I come?”
After weeks of delays Richie Murray’s new contract was finally edging its way past the collection of pedants and bores the production company liked to refer to as its legal department.
“It’s a long trip.” A delicious note of concern had found its way into Sarah’s voice.
“It’s no problem; I’ll book the train tomorrow.” The lawyers’ questions could be answered easily enough via phone or email from Scotland.
“Well, if you’re sure. She’s got a surprise for you.” With no way out Sarah dialled the breeziness back up. She wasn’t against Dermot seeing his daughter as such; she just didn’t believe in making it too easy for him.
He put the phone down with a smile. Sometimes it was the little victories that got you through.
Sarah hadn’t been wrong about the trip. First class travel and chauffeur driven cars had been absent from Dermot’s life for longer than he cared to think about. Five hours in economy on the so-called East Coast Express, listening to other people eat, had been followed by two more hours winding northwards from Edinburgh in a small underpowered hire car.
With March already a good ten days old London was welcoming warmer days and longer evenings. Scotland, though, was having none of it and getting dark sometime just after lunch. It was fully black by the time he reached the village that Wayne (and now Sarah and Molly) called home, even though it was barely mid-afternoon.
His ex-wife and daughter had been safely ensconced in their Edinburgh flat before Wayne’s name had received its first tentative airing.
He should perhaps have suspected the “job of a lifetime” wasn’t the only reason behind Sarah’s sudden hankering for the chill winds of the north.
“Sounds like a right wanker.” Realising he’d been duped, Dermot’s first response had been as childish as it was satisfying.
He’d almost heard Sarah smile down the phone as she reclaimed the moral high ground temporarily ceded by her little deception. Within three months she and Molly had moved in with Wayne. Dermot could only hope that he’d be an improvement on her most recent boyfriend, Mikey the car dealer cum wide boy. Molly had never taken to Mikey, and Dermot had initially welcomed the news of the split. He might not have been so hasty if he’d know about Wayne, lurking as yet unseen in the gloom of those short Scottish afternoons.
That very same gloom had failed to hide the fact that Molly hadn’t been joking about her new home. But she’d been wrong in one respect. It wasn’t like a castle, it was a castle.
Wayne had been some high-flying internet entrepreneur in Silicon Glen, making his first million by the age of seven then going on to make more of them until he’d easily passed three figures. He’d cashed his chips in before the crash and bought a half ruined castle, turning its grounds into an organic farm. It didn’t look like Dermot was about to get the tour. Sarah already had Molly waiting by the drawbridge with shoes and little rucksack in place. Wayne at least had shown enough tact to stay out of sight, churning organic butter in another wing of his castle no doubt. Maybe not such a wanker after all, though Dermot wasn’t about to let that count in the man’s favour.
His ex-wife looked good, her blonde hair expensively cut into a shiny bob. She’d lost weight too, something she’d never much bothered herself with when she was with Dermot. But then he’d hardly been the model… Best not go over all that again.
“Daddy. Daddy, you’ll never guess.” His daughter at least seemed pleased to see him. She charged forward, arms open wide.
What, that Wanker Wayne had bought her a pony to celebrate their arrival at Châteaux Fromage? No, he’d never have guessed that. The little surprise Sarah had mentioned no doubt.
Not long ago Dermot had bought his daughter ice creams when they had something to celebrate. Now another man was buying her horses. Seemed that Wayne’s “tact” in making himself scarce was nothing more than good old-fashioned fear of being punched in the head.
Dermot had spent the drive back to their Edinburgh hotel gripping the steering wheel a little too tightly as he heard all about the sodding horse.
How Molly had thought long and hard before naming him Nugget.
How she rode him every day.
And how he had his own special area of the stable, which was “much bigger than Daddy’s entire whole flat”.
Yeah, cheers for that Mol.
Was it so wrong to wish the beast a painful hoof infection, or perhaps a nasty bout of foot and mouth?
A few more punters wandered into the King’s Arms as Dermot nurtured fantasies of unpleasant further equine ailments while he got through the best part of another beer. He knew he should have been spending the time more productively. Returning one of the five calls he’d missed from Richie Murray would have been a good start. But the thought of talking to the chef just then made his whole face hurt. It wasn’t for nothing that Richie had been voted TV’s most annoying man three years on the spin. And that was from a viewing public who happily watched his show and didn’t have to speak to him six times a day.
In truth though, Dermot needed Richie and the hefty commission from his new TV contract far more than Richie needed his manager right now. Not least because the chef was officially his last client standing. But if he was going to talk to Richie he’d be doing it with a fresh pint in his hand. He waved at the barman as he pulled out his trusty phone. It nestled in his hand, hard and sleek and shiny. Immediately he felt better. The phone was the light sabre to his Luke Skywalker. In his hands it was a weapon of almost unimaginable power. All his knowledge, all his contacts dwelt within the phone. With it he could unleash the force and battle the dark side (feckless celebrities, greedy producers and fussy little contract lawyers).
But without it he was nothing.
Dermot pressed a button and the Jedi weapon sprang to life. He took a deep breath, preparing to join battle with the dark lord of TV cookery once again.
“Join me and we will rule the daytime schedules…”
The light sabre gave a little beep as a message popped up on its screen.
“I luv U Dad. See U soon M xxx”
The music started inside his head and he took a sip of his beer. Just for a while everything was right again and all thought of calling Richie was chased from his mind.
The two days in Edinburgh had done much to erase the damage done by three months, hundreds of miles and the bloody horse. Molly had chatted away about old times as they’d done the zoo, the castle, the shops, plenty of cafés and then the zoo again (zoos were a big thing for Molly).
It was all his Thursdays rolled into one. Nugget the horse barely got a look in.
But all too soon he’d found himself back at the entrance to Wayne’s castle-cum-cheese empire. Sarah had smiled coldly from the doorway, again failing to invite him in as Molly had dished out her trademark hug; the one where her arms went round his neck about four times and felt like they were never going to let go.
Then she let go.
“Bye darling. I’ll see you really soon.”
“Bye, Daddy.” She’d said it with a sad little smile. But it had only been little and not really that sad.
He’d reached for her again but she was already turning away, asking after Nugget as the door swung shut. His first stop in London was going to be a shop selling small voodoo horses and packets of rusty nails.
Then he’d had a far better idea.
His new idea had kept Dermot smiling most of the way back from Edinburgh and he was smiling again as he thought about it now. He was just getting round to thinking about ringing Richie again when a group of noisily self-satisfied suits came in and annexed the table right behind him. He deactivated the light sabre once more and deprioritised the chef behind a quick exit, a cab and a takeaway.
But for some reason there was a fresh beer in front of him.
“Compliments of the gentleman over there.” The barman pointed to the other end of the bar. But the gentleman wasn’t over there anymore.
“Mr Jack. You are a hard man to track down.” He was over here smiling a knowing sort of smile and stretching out a hand. “My name is Yegor Koslov.” The words were perfect English but this was at odds with his comedy Russian accent.
Dermot eyed both new arrivals – man and beer – cautiously. The man wore an expensive suit and a cheap haircut. The hair was thinning and blond (possibly dyed) and quite a bit too long on top, what the more uncharitable might have described as a combe over. At six foot four he could have pulled it off with no questions asked. But at five-five? Not a chance.
The beer looked OK, though. Dermot took a swig to buy some time. It wasn’t every day a real-life Russian gangster rocked up and got a round in. He couldn’t swear on the Russian bit with just that comedy accent to do on. His knowledge of the country was limited to Bond villains and a regrettable misunderstanding with a lap dancer who’d called herself Elena. But the gangster bit? You didn’t spending half a lifetime scratching the fleshy underbelly of the entertainment business without knowing a crook when you saw one, however small and badly coiffured.
“I’ve been sent to collect you.”
Jesus, that accent. It was like he was overacting the part of a minor Russian hood in a bad gangster movie in the hope of a promotion to top baddie in the straight to TV sequel.
Dermot drank again, buying a few more seconds as two things occurred to him.
Firstly there was something cold about this miniature gangster with his bad hair and comedy accent. It might be a mistake to laugh at him.
The second concerned the question of who’d sent him. And that just had to be Charlie Mulrooney. If the loan shark was using outside help it meant he wanted to cover his tracks. The Russian wasn’t just there to deliver a threat – he was there to carry it out. It was money back time or else.
Not that the cash wasn’t going to be a problem with Richie’s new contract due any day now. It just wouldn’t be today. The “better idea” that had trumped the voodoo horse had also been a far more costly one. The deposit and three months’ rent up front he’d just forked out on an Edinburgh flat had cleaned out the cash he’d scraped together for his first repayment to Mulrooney. Perhaps he should have stuck with the voodoo horse after all.
“So you’ll come with me?” The little man’s smile was still in place.
Hmmm, Dermot didn’t think so… He took another long pull from his pint and cast what he hoped was a casual glance round the pub as he slowly shifted his weight on the barstool. The little fella wouldn’t be going anywhere fast on those tiny legs.
Dermot took one last diversionary swig of beer as he got one foot on the ground and then…
“Oh I don’t think so, Mr Jack.”
Somehow Yegor Koslov’s hand had got itself round Dermot’s wrist. His grip was surprisingly firm for such a small man.
“I really don’t think so.”
The purse hit the floor of the tube train with a slap. Anna was already on the move as the man reached for it. Grabbing his arm, she twisted it up behind his back and forced his grubby face into the even grubbier glass of the carriage door. It all took a second, maybe less. The sort of move she’d practised hundreds of times over.
“Get off me.”
He tried to throw an elbow round and catch her face. Not very chivalrous but she was miles ahead and dodged easily, shoving his face against the door again, perhaps a touch harder than was necessary.
“Think it’s big do you? Stealing from old ladies?”
“Yer what?” The man’s feigned outrage was laughable. He squirmed again but he was built for stealth, speed and snatching. No match for Anna.
“You’re hurting me.”
“Good.” She squashed his face into the carriage door again. Up close she could smell him: cheap cider, sweat and three day old piss.
The old lady in question stared at the purse on the floor, only just beginning to cotton on.
“Are you OK?” A youngish-looking man was at Anna’s side now. Australian from the accent. New to London and the world’s most antisocial public transport system, he was blissfully unaware of that golden unwritten rule – don’t get involved. Nobody else ever did.
Except Anna, of course.
“Nothing I can’t handle.” She cringed at her own Z-list action hero dialogue. “Could you please just give the purse back to the woman over there?”
The Australian obliged and sat back down again, trying not to look put out.
“Big man, aren’t you?” Anna turned her attention back to the snatcher.
Mid-afternoon and the tube was quiet. She’d noticed him from the moment she’d got on. There was just something about him, a certain slyness perhaps, which made her look twice. Those little ratty eyes darting around, the nose on the sniff for opportunity.
He’d made his move as the old lady shuffled past, dipping in and out of her bag.
“She dropped it. I was just trying to pick it up.”
Yeah right. A jolt of the train had made him drop it at the crucial moment. The lie made Anna angry again. She spun him round and grabbed at the greasy lapels of his jacket; a short sharp knee to the balls was practically her civic duty.
“Let me go, please.” All the swagger and indignation were gone now as the sweat ran down his skinny, dirty face.
Anna felt her anger start to melt away into something closer to pity. He was just another hopeless junkie trying to fund his next score. Must have been desperate to try it when the tube was so quiet. But what should she do with him now? Involving the police would only make things… Her mind stretched for the type of understated euphemism her bosses would use.
Yes, that was it. She kept a tight hold of the man as the train slowed for the next station. Then, as the doors opened, she pushed him out onto the platform, far more gently than he deserved. The man stumbled and fell all the same, and the small group of passengers waiting to board the train simply stepped around him as if nothing had happened.
Back in the carriage all eyes were down too as the train pulled away. Books, tablets, newspapers and even fingernails had just become ever so interesting. Anything to avoid eye contact with the mad woman who’d just…
PUSHED A MAN OUT OF THE FUCKING TRAIN!!! The OMGs would be flying when they got on Twitter later.
The old woman whose purse she saved was far too busy thanking the nice Australian to give Anna a second glance.
And Anna was just wondering quite why she’d bothered when she spotted Kate Barnes.
Bloody, bloody, bloody hell.
What was she doing on the tube? Staff of Kate’s rank didn’t need to slum it on public transport. Anna cursed the pointless meeting that had put her on the same train as the junkie, the old woman’s purse and her sodding new boss.
An opportunity like this would prove too good for Kate to pass up. She looked down the carriage at Anna with a slow shake of her head. Lawson would be hearing about this.
“Impulsive” and “headstrong”. Anna had heard those words a little too often recently – both to her face but more often behind her back. Not that her current role gave her much scope for either. But there was no point in going over all that again.
Maybe now they’d just throw in “tough” the next time they got to talking about her. “Tough” and “incisive”? She could live with that. It wasn’t much of a leap from there up to the hallowed high ground of “decisive”.
Ha, who exactly was she trying to kid? Instead of “incisive” it would be plain old “unreliable.”
Or “unstable” maybe?
No, “emotional”, that would be it.
She should talk to Kate now, make sure her boss had seen it how it really was. But what was the point? Kate would have seen only what she wanted to see.
Theirs was the next stop. As the train slowed Anna moved towards the doors for a quick getaway. Eyes down she headed for the exit, resisting the temptation to run and wondering what exactly she’d achieved beyond blowing her career prospects even more.
One old woman still had her purse. Great, maybe the ungrateful old cow should learn to keep her bag shut in future.
Why couldn’t Anna have stayed out of it?
But she knew the reason. It was the same reason she’d taken this job in the first place.
She pressed on determined to keep Kate behind her. No way was that bitch getting the satisfaction of seeing her cry.