lundi 16 mars 2009

The Poor List - A vague beginning.

Spring morning fresh as a rinsed eye. On the side of a bus shelter, the corner of a brightly coloured poster of some London landmarks and a smiling police beneath the words, ‘The innocent have nothing to fear’ flaps in a breeze. A man runs past down the road and through the crowd. Outraged people shout and move out of his way. He sidesteps and spins . Klaxons sound and further off tyres screech. A black Chrysler skids to a halt up by the curb twenty yards behind the fleeing man and three men in dark suits and coats jump out and sprint after him. The running man looks over his shoulder and glimpses his reflection in a shop front window. He runs into more people and stumbles frantically on. The man dodges between two parked delivery vans and darts into the road. A taxi screeches to a halt and nearly hits him, horn blaring. The limping man runs haphazardly down the road, dodges some more traffic and ends up back on the pavement on the same side of the road, still running.

In the road which runs parallel to the British Museum, two men stand outside a café smoking, their dark coat collars turned up against the fresh breeze. One touches the earphone in his right ear. They watch, motionless, as the man on the opposite side of the road careers into a wall of armed and uniformed men waiting besides a corner by a blue BMW van.

The officials surround the flailing figure who is now shouting hysterically. "In you get sunshine.", someone shouts to the struggling shape bundled into the back of the waiting van. A helicopter hovers overhead then tilts quickly away. The van speeds off and the event is swallowed up by the passing crowd.

A man, neither old nor young, is sat by himself at a table in the quarter full interior of the café. He is wearing a white, stained work shirt, worn grey jeans and a black jacket. There is a folded newspaper in front of him. He moves his foot in time to the music and his work boots squeak faintly on the waxed wooden floor. A cloud passes over the sun.

One after the other, the man and woman outside crush their cigarette butts. One holds the door open for the other and they go back inside. Noise of passing crowds, a siren and the throb of passing cars briefly fill the room. A slight draft sways some wooden wind chimes hanging over the café’s counter. The lone man at the table looks up. He notices the helicopter then goes back to examining the bright screen of his pda. He sighs then brushes a mosquito form his ear. A waitress passes his table and asks him about coffee. He looks up and nods.

The café's unintentional theme is faded luxury. The leather sofa seats are frayed and there are cuts here and there in their shiny black surfaces. There are bookshelves crammed with books and impressionist prints on the walls. The low slung varnished wood tables are worn smooth, and on them there are small vases of flowers. There are bronze fake looking sculptures on plastic plinths. One of the two smokers, now at a table over by the window, laughs loudly over the music.

The man in the white shirt takes a folded letter out of his pocket and squints at it. It is definitely addressed to him. He reads it again. The letter is short and has been written on heavy A4 embossed paper. He glances up. The flower’s white petals are caught in the sun. He folds the letter in half and slides it back into the envelope.

He looks down and notices a red ant crawl across the table towards the half-empty sugar cellar. He picks up his pda. A message from the bank, a cancellation and some publicity for a pub's closing down party.

He whispers to himself and tries his get his mail. The pda makes a tiny discordant noise. He curses quietly. The ant turns and retreats. It wanders into a slanting trapezoid of sun light on the table. Its body glints. The man crushes it with a damp trembling thumb and feels its body yield and stick. He rolls its remains between his fingers and it turns to dust. He wipes his hand on a serviette and notices the time on the faux antique clock over the counter.

He takes a sip of the luke warm, almost tasteless, coffee and stares at one of the sculptures. He frowns at his reflection in the bottom of his cup, then puts it down. He closes his eyes and the music’s uneven rhythm washes over him.

He does not notice the lull in the level of conversation for a moment or the faint chill that infiltrates as a small man sidles in through the door. Dressed in jeans, trainers and a jacket over a blue sports top zipped to the neck, he looks round, notices the person he is looking for and starts to walk over. McCabe turns his head. But he has already been seen.

He leans down smoothly grabs has bag and is soon moving quickly from the table away from the man. A cup rattles, falls and breaks on the floor. Some people look over. He makes a move towards the toilets but the path is blocked now by a large figure in a dark coat. She raises her head at McCabe and flexes her shoulders. McCabe turns and walks diagonally towards the door of the L-shaped café. Bumps into something and someone says something in protest. He walks over to the doorway, but, again, his path is blocked by the other operative who tilts his head and smiles. McCabe makes to rush past, but he stops and pushes him discreetly, but with force, back inside.

"Brendan McCabe.”, a voice says behind him. McCabe turns and faces a small smiling figure carrying a dark briefcase. “Sorry I'm late." He takes McCabe by the elbow and ushers him away from the exit.
“Hey. Get off what the fuck….?” But then is stopped. They speak in trained tone.
“This way here. There we go. Come on. S’right.” The less powerful operatives say soothingly.
As if in a dream, McCabe follows.
“I’ve heard so much about you Mr.McCabe.” And sitting down, “You seem a little rushed. Don’t tell me you were planning to leave so. So precipitously?” He places what he was carrying by the table. His voice is calm and corrugated, little more than a whisper. He takes a pda out of the pocket of his top, removes his jacket and, barely perceptibly, nods to one of his attendants. “Please, sir. Take a seat.”
“No way. Hey! Hello everyone.” McCabe says to indifference.

“Please Mister McCabe. Don’t make this any more difficult for yourself. We are here to help.”
The waiters and waitresses busied around the tables. The guards had gone back to their places. Nothing had happened. The man gestures again to the seat. McCabe’s body sags slightly and he sits down. The waitress arrives and sweeps up the porcelain fragments with a pan and brush, then mops up the spilt coffee with a cloth. The man glances at his silver pda and speaks quickly into its shining edge.

“No prob.” He says and puts the thing on the table between them where it slowly rotates and glints. Smiling, he sits back in the armchair. McCabe sighs.
"Well well. Mister McCabe. You look so much older than your e fit. You’re not an easy man to track down.”
"Who the fuck are you?” McCabe says.
"Five years with the Factory. Star operator. Computers. ” The man stretches his arms. “Destined for great things. Stellar ratings. Promise and potential. Then. Then leaves under. Under inauspicious circumstances. Disappears from the scene?" The man gestures at the waitress. “Ring any bells?”
“Nope. Can’t say it does. Now if you don’t mind…”
“You know us we know you. Don’t try to be clever, Mister McCabe. Please.”
”Fine. Look. I said what is this? Who the fuck are you?” McCabe says. The waitress drifts back over. She says something to them.
The man raises his eye brows in sleepy mock surprise. “All in good time. All in good time. Yes, everything’s fine. Though I think you know who we are. Or else why did you run? Four coffees. You couldn’t have expected to elude us for ever.”
McCabe leans forward in his seat. “No really. Is this some kind of wind up or something?”
The man smiles. His teeth, though nicoteened, stand out from his dark skin. “Don’t try to begin to. Insult us Mister McCabe, sir.” The man relaxes further into his chair
McCabe glances away and frowns then looks directly into the man’s narrow smooth face. “No. I don’t know who you are or what you’re talking about. Really. You got the wrong bloke. Sorry.”
“Am I going to have to. Refresh your famous photographic memory, Mister McCabe. Surely not?” He leans down and undoes his briefcase. It snaps open with a heavy click. He delves inside and from an almost full blue lateral file pulls out a thick grey folder.
McCabe blinks at the man in front of him. The man places the dossier on the table and extracts a pair of reading glasses from an inside pocket in his expensive looking top.
“That’s right, Mister McCabe.” He places his glasses round his small ears and pushes the middle of frame up the bridge of his nose . “Your past has caught up with you.”
“My past? Look, whoever you think you’ve cornered here, you’ve really got the wrong man.” The man sits up, and leafs through some of the documents. He glances at McCabe over the silver frames.
“You are Brendan McCabe, presently living 159 Altrad Towers, SE 16. Nice. You are currently working for an Acamedia outfit based in Islington. Born in Paris though a UK citizen, your mother is a top civil servant, your father, deceased five BT. One sister a doctor currently overseas, one brother high flying actuary for one of the country’s most prestigious insurance firms. I do not think I need to go on Mister McCabe.” The man takes his glasses off and wipes them with a yellow cloth.
McCabe considers what the man has said for a moment then says
“No. Sorry I’ve no still idea what you’re talking about.”
The man scratches the side of his nose, crosses his legs and brushes a mote or two of dust off his dark jeans. Placing his glasses back in their sheath he says, “Come on Mister McCabe, you know better than that.” He breathes out heavily. “It’s never over, even for a washed up honky like you.”
“Look. I’ll call the cops. I’ve got people who know me.” McCabe says.
“It’s a paradox isn’t it?” The man smiles. “Who do you call when it’s the police who are. Harassing you, shall we say?”
Their coffees arrive. “Shall I be mother-fucker?” the man asks picking up the small pot of milk. He grimaces and gestures to the waitress again.
“Steak and chips and whatever my friend here is wanting.”
“Sorry. No steak.” The waitress says.
“Then the chicken…Now Mister McCabe..”
He pours coffee, adds milk and sugar. He puts down the menu. "Are you enjoying the Gogol work ?” He sucks air in through a gap in his teeth and studies the leather bound carte du jour . "All that giving something back to society stuff?"
The waitress murmurs something into a tiny microphone on her uniform. McCabe gets up to leave. “Look. I really don’t have to listen to this. I’m afraid I’m going to have to curtail this little reunion, or whatever it’s meant to be.”
“No chicken. Sorry.”, the waitress says.
The man smiles sympathetically. “Mister McCabe. You really don’t give me much of a choice.” He looks with a slight frown at the waitress. “The sole then. I’m going to have to warn you. My people are.” He wipes the corner of his mouth with a serviette and gestures towards the two figures at the other table. “Robust in their methods, let us say.”
“Are you a debt collector or something?”
“Really Mister McCabe. He gestures to the burlier operative. A slight movement of index and second fingers. “I am serious. Things could get very ugly very quickly for you. No matter what your, reputation.”
“You can threaten all you like. What can you do here? Plain daylight, people, public place.”
“You’d be surprised Mister McCabe. We picked someone up just now right outside this very establishment. No one batted an eyelid. Didn’t even turn their heads. No one does. They didn’t see what was really happening perhaps. Or they misinterpret things. Or perhaps no one dares to interfere. It’s something I’ve noticed in the last ten years or so. So you can give it a go Mister McCabe, shout and scream perhaps. Jump about, cause a bit of a. A commotion. But frankly I don’t think it would get you very far. People would tend to take our side of the argument. Besides, it would only serve to make. To make my entourage that bit more upset and bilious. More likely to take out some of their vexations in a physical way. It has been known. Rib-cage, toes or, indeed, even faces.”
“The Factory must be going through some hard times if it’s having to employ the likes of you.”
“Everyone’s going through hard times Mister McCabe, or haven’t you been watching the news?”
“I try to avoid it. Comedy isn’t my thing.”
“No soul”, says the waitress.
“Mister McCabe. Don’t think there is anything idle about my threats. We know where you live. Then just the chips then.”
McCabe smiles. “So do I. OK. Hands up, it’s a fair cop. But, Mister Cloak or Misses Dagger or whoever you are you can tell the people back at the insect house . It’s finished. You. Your people know the deal. It’s all over.” McCabe starts to gather his things and get up
“Nothing is ever over with the Factory Mister McCabe. Put the knife down. My name’s Dermott, by the way. But you can call me Freddy. Sit down. Sit down now.”
“Sorry. We’re a bit short of things at the moment what with…”
“Then just get us anything you’ve got then ok? Can you do that?”
“I’m not interested in your names or anything else you people have got to say.” McCabe says. He looks over to the table by the window and falls back into his chair.
"Of course.” Dermott continues, "We like to make sure that our former employees are well looked after. One way or another.”
The waitress smiles and walks away. One of the two raises his head in their direction. The other looks over to McCabe's table and slowly rubs his hands together.
“I’m off your books. The slate’s clean. I owe you people nothing. I’ve got fucking rights you know?" The people sat at the table a few feet away turn their heads in their direction. Dermott smiles faintly and takes the drink he'd ordered from the waitress
“There’s no need to get. Melodramatic, Mister McCabe. Besides, technically speaking you are a subject of the crown and as such do not possess anything much more than the clothes you are wearing. The top and bottom of all this is nothing very much really. Miss Singer just wants a word. That is all.”
McCabe shakes his head then puts the knife down in front of him. “No way.”
Dermott leans forward and plucks a petal off one of the posies. “She tells me to inform you that she is pleased to see things going so well for you. Given the situation." He sips his coffee. "Isn't that a Cézanne there?" Dermott leans up in his chair to see the famed print. "So it is. The ‘Card players’. A copy, of course. He died of pneumonia you know. A very unpleasant end"
McCabe says, "Look, Mister Dermott? Much as I’d like chat I've got a bad tempered boss. Tell her to phone me."
Dermott rolls the white petal between finger and thumb and laughs. “Please. Call me Freddy. And we are playing by old school ways these days Mister McCabe.”
“I don’t really care what you’re playing.”
“OK. I'll get to the point." he says. He flicks something off his sleeve and reaches into his brief case once more and pulls out a red carton of cigarettes. He tosses them on to the table next to the paper. McCabe glances down.
Dermott looks at the picture of a diseased lung on the front for a moment and turns the pack over then smoothes his top. "Perk of the job."
McCabe picks the carton up and sighs. "I’m still owed.”
Dermott laughs. “If there’s going to be any payback. I fear it will be coming from you, Mister McCabe.”
Dermott shakes his head slightly and glances over the menu again. “Tellis got promoted you know, after you left. He asked me to send you his regards." Dermott picks up a knife in front of him.
"I really pleased for him. He deserves everything he gets."
"I don't believe you are being wholly. Sincere there, Mister McCabe." Dermott places a tiny torn square of paper on the blade of the knife. He smiles a trace of a smile.
"That's the way it is." There is a change in the music. Some blues under a crackle of scratched vinyl.
Dermott raises his eyebrows. "I wouldn't worry about your boss too much either." He says. He turns the knife over quickly and the piece of paper disappears. “Weren’t the twenty BT’s awful.”
McCabe looks up. "Why’s that. Have you extracted him as well?"
"Oh, word on the grapevine. I wouldn't take too much notice."
McCabe sighs. "The eighties you mean. The eighties. I can’t stand all the BT PT stuff Anyway, what’s this about my boss?"
"That things being what they are. Capital outflows, credit seizures bank runs and the like. Things get. Untidy" He twists the knife round again and, as if by magic the tiny white square appears again, as if there were two.
"It's just a job."
"Strictly speaking what you do, is just work, Mister McCabe. The people you left behind so. So heedlessly have got jobs. And the people I work with have got careers."
"So, what you've come hear to gloat on behalf of the firm have you?"
Dermott sighs then shakes his head. "Of course not. I'm sure what you do, Mister McCabe, has its merits in lots of ways."
“At least I’m out in the real world. Doing something”, he pauses, “ …meaningful. Not playing stupid games in an office somewhere.”
"At most. Mister McCabe.”
“I said “At most”. The most you can say of what you do is that it is, indeed, out in the world. But that, in itself…well.” He spreads his hands.
“I do hope you’re not going to trying to persuade me to do anything, because if you are you really aren’t doing a very good job, Mister Freddy.”
The waitress arrives and places some bowls of the food they had ordered on the table. Dermott smiles, apologizes and moves his pda. He rests the base of both hands on the table and raises his hands to McCabe for a second.
“Ok." Dermott says. "The Factory is under a bit of. Of pressure at the moment, as you can imagine. I admit it." He strokes his hands over his face. “Things. The situation and the way things are. . ." he trails off and looks at the painting again. "I’m sure it’s nothing the place can't handle, though. Why all this inconvenience?" "Yes, this time. . . " Dermott says and coughs. "Things have become difficult shall we say. Of late. You'd be surprised. The thing is, some old debts are going to have to be called in."
"Oh no no. Look at my face. I think you'll find it betrays the sentiment of someone who really couldn't give a jumping god's fuck."Dermott smiles. He watches McCabe put the cigarette packet back on the table. “Besides, you lot don't look like people who are having any difficulties Freddy. Let’s see here, the flash pda, the cigarettes and the car somewhere, I guess. What possible difficulties could someone like you with a career and all have exactly, Freddy?”“The difficulties are more. Existential. At the moment. I’m afraid to say. Tuck in here Mister McCabe. The Factory will pay.”"
McCabe looks at his watch. “I’m not hungry. Mister Dermott.”
“You can’t hide amongst the little people for ever you know.” Dermott touches the edge of a sugar cube onto the surface of his coffee. The dark liquid soaks into the white lump.
“Look, Mister Dermott, whoever you are, don’t pick on me. I’ve been out of the loop for a long time. Too much mileage. There must be hundreds of punters better suited than me.”
Dermott smiles. “At the moment central needs all the bodies it can get. Don’t flatter yourself Mister McCabe, you were a long way down the list.”
“I could agree and just…”, McCabe closes his eye and sighs.
Dermott plucks the last petal of the flower. “Time to go Mister McCabe. It’s a free world like they say, but you have no choice.” Outside, the wail of a siren starts up. There are groans from some of the clientele.
“Not again.”
A few seconds later, the music stops and the lights go out. The waitress arrives with more of their food and shrugs.
“We’ve a generator if you’ll wait?”" That won’t be necessary Miss. We’ll be on our way”
“You’ll still have to pay”
“Of course." He holds out his right hand and she scans the line below the knuckle of his thumb with the paycam.
“Have a day.” He says to her
“What?” she says back McCabe starts to gather his things, frowning at Dermott. People leave. A manager shouts for someone to go down to the basement. The paycam gives out a high pitched tone and whirrs out a white tongue of paper. “Come on Mister McCabe.” Dermott gets up, folds the receipt up and putting it into his pocket says, “Singer waits for no man.” Shouting now over the shriek of siren outside. “Especially one like you.”