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Catalog » Browse by Title: L » London Noir (England) » Excerpt from “Trouble Is a Lonesome Town” by Cathi Unsworth, from London Noir

London Noir (England)

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Serpent’s Tail novelist Unsworth teases, tickles, and horrifies with her stellar curation of London Noir.

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Excerpt from “Trouble Is a Lonesome Town” by Cathi Unsworth, from London Noir

(King’s Cross)

Dougie arrived at the concourse opposite the station just half an hour after it had all gone off. He’d had the cab driver drop him down the end of Gray’s Inn Road, outside a pub on the corner there, where he’d made a quick dive into the gents to remove the red hood he’d been wearing over the black one, pulled on a Burberry cap he’d had in his bag so that the visor was down over his eyes. That done, he’d worked his way through the mass of drinkers, ducked out another door, and walked the rest of the way to King’s Cross.

The Adidas bag he gripped in his right hand held at least twenty grand in cash. Dougie kind of wished it was handcuffed to him, so paranoid was he about letting go of it even for a second that he’d had trouble just putting it on the floor of the taxi between his feet. He’d wanted it to be on his knee, in his arms, more precious than a baby. But Dougie knew that above all else now, he had to look calm, unperturbed. Not like a man who’d just ripped off a clip joint and left a man for dead on a Soho pavement.

That’s why he’d had the idea of making the rendezvous at the Scottish restaurant across the road from the station. He’d just blend in with the other travelers waiting for their train back up north, toting their heavy bags, staring at the TV with blank, gormless expressions as they pushed stringy fries smothered in luminous ketchup into their constantly moving mouths. The way he was dressed now, like some hood rat, council estate born and bred, he’d have no trouble passing amongst them. He ordered his quarter-pounder and large fries, with a supersize chocolate lard shake to wash it all down, eyes wandering around the harshly lit room as he waited for it all to land on his red plastic tray. All the stereotypes were present and correct. The fat family (minus dad, natch) sitting by the window, mother and two daughters virtually indistinguishable under the layers of flab and identical black-and-white hairstyles by Chavettes of Tyneside to match the colors of their footie team. The solitary male, a lad of maybe ten years and fifteen stone, staring sullenly out the window through pinhole eyes, sucking on the straw of a soft drink that was only giving him back rattling ice cubes. On the back of his shirt read his dreams: 9 SHEARER. But he was already closer to football than footballer.

Then there was the pimp and his crack whore; a thin black man sat opposite an even thinner white woman with bruises on her legs and worn-down heels on her boots. Her head bowed like she was on the nod, while he, all angles and elbows and knees protruding from his slack jeans and oversize Chicago Bulls shirt, kept up a steady monologue of abuse directed at her curly head. The man’s eyes where as rheumy as a seventy-year-old’s, and he sprayed fragments of his masticated fries out as he kept on his litany of insults. Sadly for Iceberg Slim, it looked like the motherfuckingbitchhocuntcocksucker he was railing at had already given up the ghost.

Oblivious to the psychodrama, the Toon Army had half of the room to themselves, singing and punching the air, reliving moment-by-moment the two goals they’d scored over Spurs‹well thank fuck they had, wouldn’t like to see this lot disappointed. They were vile enough in victory, hugging and clasping at each other with tears in their eyes, stupid joker’s hats askew over their gleaming red faces, they might as well have been bumming each other, which was obviously what they all wanted.

Yeah, Dougie liked to get down among the filth every now and again, have a good wallow. In picking over the faults of others, he could forget about the million and one he had of his own.

Handing over a fiver to the ashen bloke behind the counter, who had come over here thinking nothing could be worse than Romania, Dougie collected his change and parked himself inconspicuously in the corner. Someone had left a copy of the Scum on his table. It was a bit grubby and he really would have preferred to use surgical gloves to touch it, but it went so perfectly with his disguise and the general ambience of the joint that he forced himself. Not before he had the bag firmly wedged between his feet, however, one of the handles round his ankle so if anyone even dared to try . . . Dougie shook his head and busied himself instead by arranging the food on his plastic tray in a manner he found pleasing: the fries tipped out of their cardboard wallet into the half of the Styrofoam container that didn’t have his burger in it. He opened the ketchup so that he could dip them in two at a time, between mouthfuls of burger and sips of chocolate shake. He liked to do everything methodically.

Under the headline “STITCHED UP,” the front page of the Scum was tirelessly defending the good character of the latest batch of rapist footballers who’d all fucked one girl between the entire team and any of their mates who fancied it. Just so they could all check out each other’s dicks while they did it, Dougie reckoned. That sort of shit turned his stomach almost as much as the paper it was printed on, so he quickly flipped the linen over, turned to the racing pages at the back. That would keep his mind from wandering, reading all those odds, totting them up in his head, remembering what names went with what weights and whose colors. All he had to do now was sit tight and wait. Wait for Lola.

 

Lola.

Just thinking about her name got his fingertips moist, got little beads of sweat breaking out on the back of his neck. Got a stirring in his baggy sweatpants so that he had to look up sharply and fill his eyes with a fat daughter chewing fries with her mouth open to get it back down again.

Women didn’t often have this effect on Dougie. Only two, so far, in his life. And he’d gone further down the road with this one than anyone else before.

He could still remember the shock he felt when he first saw her, when she sat herself down next to him at the bar with a tired sigh and asked for a whiskey and soda. He caught the slight inflection in her accent, as if English wasn’t her first language, but her face was turned away from him. A mass of golden-brown curls bobbed on top of her shoulders, she had on a cropped leopardskin jacket and hipster jeans, a pair of pointy heels protruding from the bottom, wound around the stem of the bar stool. The skin on her feet was golden-brown too; mixed-race she must have been, and for a minute Dougie thought he knew what she would look like before she turned her head, somewhere between Scary Spice and that bird off Holby City. An open face, pretty and a bit petulant. Maybe some freckles over the bridge of her nose.

But when she did turn to him, cigarette dangling between her lips and long fingers wound around the short, thick glass of amber liquid, she looked nothing so trite as “pretty.”

Emerald-green eyes fixed him from under deep lids, fringed with the longest dark lashes he had ever seen. Her skin was flawless, the color of the whiskey in her glass, radiating that same intoxicating glow.

For a second he was taken back to a room in Edinburgh a long time ago. An art student’s room, full of draped scarves and fake Tiffany lamps and a picture on the wall of Marlene Dietrich in The Blue Angel. This woman looked strangely like Marlene. Marlene with an afro. Black Angel.

She took the cigarette from between her red lips and asked: “Could you give me a light?” Her glittering eyes held his brown ones in a steady gaze, a smile flickered over her perfect lips.

Dougie fumbled in the sleeve of his jacket for his Zippo and fired it up with shaking fingers. Black Angel inhaled deeply, closing her bronze-colored eyelids as she sucked that good smoke down, blowing it out again in a steady stream. Her long lashes raised and she lifted her glass to him simultaneously.

“Cheers!” she said, and he caught that heavy inflection again. Was he going mad, or did she even sound like Marlene too? “Ach,” she tossed back her mane of curls, “it’s so good to be off vork!”

“I’ll drink to that,” Dougie said, feeling like his tongue was too big for his head, his fingers too big for his hands, that he was entirely too big and clumsy. He slugged down half his pint of Becks to try and get some kind of equilibrium, stop this weird teenage feeling that threatened to paralyze him under the spell of those green eyes.

She looked amused.

“What kind of vork do you do?” she asked.

Dougie gave his standard reply. “Och, you know. This an’ that.”

It pleased her, this answer, so she continued to talk. Told him in that smoky, laconic drawl all about the place she worked. One of the clip joints off Old Compton Street, the ones specifically geared up to rip off the day-trippers.

“It izz called Venus in Furs,” she told him. “Is fucking tacky shit, yeah?”

He started to wonder if she was Croatian, or Serbian. Most of the girls pouring into Soho now were supposed to be ones kidnapped from the former Yugoslavia. Slavic was a word that suited the contours of her cheeks, the curve of her green eyes. But how could that be? Dougie didn’t think there was much of a black population in Eastern Europe. And he couldn’t imagine anyone having the balls to kidnap this one. Maybe she was here for a different reason. Images raced through his mind. Spy films, Checkpoint Charlie, the Cold War. High on her accent, he didn’t really take the actual words in.

Until at some point close to dawn, she lifted a finger and delicately traced the outline of his jaw. “I like you, Dougie.” She smiled. “I vill see you here again, yes?”

Dougie wasn’t really one for hanging out in drinking clubs. He was only in this one because earlier that evening he’d had to have a meet in Soho and he couldn’t stand any of the pubs round there. Too full, too noisy, too obvious. This was one of the better places. Discreet, old-fashioned, not really the sort of place your younger generation would go for, it was mainly populated by decaying actors skulking in a dimly lit world of memory. It was an old luvvie who’d first shown him the place. An old luvvie friend of a friend who’d been ripped off for all his Queen Anne silver and a collection of Penny Blacks by the mercenary young man he’d been silly enough to invite back for a nightcap. Dougie had at least got the silver back, while the guy was sleeping off what he’d spent the proceeds of the stamps on. He really didn’t come here often, but as he watched the woman slip off her stool and shrug on her furry jacket, he felt a sudden pang and asked, “Wait a minute‹what’s your name?”

She smiled and said: “It’s Lola. See you again, honey.” And then she was gone.

Dougie found himself drifting back to the club the next evening.

It was weird, because he’d kept to himself for so long he felt like his heart was a hard, cold stone that no one could melt. It was best, he had long ago told himself, not to form attachments in his line of work. Attachments could trip you up.

Attachments could bring you down. It was better that no one knew him outside his small circle of professional contacts and the clients they brought. Safer that way. He’d done six months time as a teenager, when he was stupid and reckless, and had vowed he’d never be caught that way again.

He was mulling over all these facts as he found himself sitting at the bar. He didn’t quite know what he thought he was doing there, just that he felt his heart go each time the buzzer went and a new group of people clattered down the steps. Lola had come into the place alone. He supposed he could ask the guvnor what he knew about her, but that didn’t seem very gentlemanly. After all, he wasn’t a regular himself, who knew how long she’d been making her way down here after the grind of an evening “huzzling the schmucks” under Venus’s neon underskirts?

At half past 1:00 she had wound her way down the stairs toward him. A smile already twitching at the corners of her mouth, she was pleased to see him. One look up her long, bare, perfect legs to her leather miniskirt and that same leopardskin jacket and he felt the same.

“He-looo, Dougie,” she said.

Dougie felt drunk, as he had ever since.

Gradually, over whiskey and sodas with the ice crinkling in the glass, she’d told him her story. It was all very intriguing. Her father was Russian, she said, ex-KGB, who since the fall of Communism had managed to create an empire for himself in electronic goods. He was a thug, but a charming one—he had named her after a character in a Raymond Chandler book that he’d read, contraband, as a teenager.

They had a lot of money, but he was very strict. Made her study hard and never go out. There was not a lot of emotion between him and her mother.

Her mother was an oddity, a Somalian. Lola didn’t know how they met, but she suspected. Back in the old days, it was quite possible her father had bought her out of semi-slavery in a Moscow brothel. Her mother always claimed she was a princess, but she was also a drunk, so what was Lola to believe? She was beautiful, that was for sure. Beautiful and superstitious, always playing with a deck of strange cards and consulting patterns in tea leaves. She might have mastered dark arts, but never managed to speak Russian—probably she never wanted to. So Lola grew up speaking two languages, in one big, empty apartment in Moscow.

Right now, she was supposed to be in Switzerland. She looked embarrassed when she told Dougie this. “At finishing school. Can you believe? Vot a cliché.” Lola had done a bunk six months ago. She’d crossed Europe, taking cash-in-hand work as she did, determined to get to London. She wanted to escape while she was in the “free West” rather than go back to what she knew would be expected of her in Russia. Marriage to some thick bastard son of one of her father’s ex-comrades. A life of looking nice and shutting up, just like her mother.

But she feared her father’s arm was long. There were too many Russians in London already. Someone was bound to rat her out, the reward money would be considerable. So she had to get together a “traveling fund” and find somewhere else to go. Somewhere safe.

“Vere are you from, Dougie?” she purred. “Not from round here, eh?”

“What do you reckon?” he said archly. “Where d’you think I got a name like Dougie from, heh?”

Lola laughed, put her finger on the end of his nose.

“You are from Scotland, yes?”

“Aye,” nodded Dougie.

“Where in Scotland?”

“Edinburgh.”

“Vot’s it like in Edinburgh?”

A warning voice in Dougie’s head told him not to even give her that much. This story she had spun for him, it sounded too much like a fairy tale. She was probably some down-on-her-luck Balkans hooker looking for a sugar daddy. No one could have had the lifestyle she described. It was too far-fetched, too mental.

The touch of her finger stayed on the end of his nose. Her green eyes glittered under the optics. Before Dougie knew what he was doing, words were coming out of his mouth.



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