I wrote this story based on Regus Hunt, a character in my novel Zappa’s Mam’s a Slapper and five others who also appear there: Billy McErlane (the Zappa of the novel’s title); Antony Baker; Mister Henry, the lawyer who will one day defend Billy McErlane in a murder trial; the Detective Sergeant; and the Detective Inspector who reminds Mister Henry of a vulture. It stands on its own and I hope you’ll enjoy it for its own sake. For those who don’t know, the DSS is the British Government’s Department of Social Security.
Kevin Daly had never done an honest day’s work in his twenty-two years of life. If you asked why, he’d say he’d never got the taste for it. His father hadn’t, either. Neither of them saw any reason to be a wage slave for somebody with more brains, more education or just more luck when the DSS was prepared to keep them in bread and butter and a little dishonesty would put all the jam you could want on top. But, then, his father hadn’t offended Regus Hunt, which was why – unlike Kevin – his father had never even thought about giving himself up to the police.
Regus was known for many things, but forgiveness and charity were not among them. He had once broken all the fingers of a man who stole the handbag of a woman he was interested in. Kevin Daly knew that. When Antony Baker had helped himself to the drugs money Billy MacErlane was holding for Regus, Regus had beaten him to death with his bare hands and left under-age Billy to take the rap. Kevin Daly knew that, too.
So, when Kevin learned that the Beemer he had broken into and driven away belonged not, as he had thought, to some middle class tosser but to Regus Hunt, he did not shrug it off. He experienced a terror that left him for a moment unable to speak or move, and then sent him howling down the street, wailing as he had not since he was nine years old and his teenage sister had caught him trying on her underwear and beaten him so savagely he was left with only fifty percent hearing in one ear.
It was three-thirty on the afternoon of Sunday, the twenty-fourth of May, 2009 when Kevin stepped into the police station. The date was significant. Sunday afternoons would normally have been quiet, or at least as quiet as big city police stations ever get, with villains, deadbeats and honest citizens alike sleeping off the big meal of the week.
This, though, was not just any Sunday. At three on the dot, Newcastle United had kicked off against Aston Villa in the last game of the season and, if they didn’t get at least a draw, Newcastle United were going to be relegated from English football’s top flight. Even with a draw, other results might still send them down, but without the bare minimum of a single point they were gone no matter what happened elsewhere.
Desk Sergeant Toni Straker was listening to the match on a little radio. Newcastle’s fate would not much trouble Straker, and for two reasons. One was that the sergeant thought that only men obsessed about sport, and inadequate men at that. The other was that Toni came from Sunderland, and no Mackem of either sex can ever be completely unamused by the travails of the Toon Army. Nevertheless, however happy she might be on civic grounds to see Newcastle relegated, Sergeant Straker knew it would bring the police nothing but trouble. Pub and shop windows would be going in from North Shields to Fenham. Wives and children across the region would take a battering as distraught drunks lashed out at the softest targets available. The cells would overflow with drink-filled wife-beaters. Police would be so stretched responding to domestics that muggers, rapists, burglars and murderers would have a free run.
And all for nothing because, a few days later, every charge by every wife would be dropped.
Shortly after three-thirty and to Toni Straker’s relief, Villa’s Gareth Barry completely mis-hit a shot at Newcastle’s goal. Reprieve was short-lived. Any decent full back would have cleared the threat with hardly a moment’s thought, but Newcastle didn’t have a full back. What they had where a full back might have been was Damien Duff. As an attacking winger, Duff was international class with more than sixty Irish caps to his name, but he was no defender. Back-pedalling furiously, he met Barry’s shot and, instead of steering it safely out of the danger zone as a real full back would have done, he knocked it away from goalie Steve Harper’s waiting arms and into the back of his own net.
Straker laid her head on her arms. Armageddon had just moved a whole lot closer.
It was into this scene of resignation and despair that Kevin Daly brought the carefully prepared but transparent set of lies he thought of as his statement.
Straker raised her head and examined her visitor. ‘I know you,’ she said. ‘Don’t I know you?’
‘Kevin Daly, Missus Straker.’
Straker sighed. ‘Of course. What do you want?’
Daly placed a car key on the counter. Straker looked at it without touching. ‘What’s that?’
Daly’s face expressed puzzlement. ‘It’s a car key.’
Straker’s eyes came up to meet Daly’s. She allowed herself a moment of silence. Then she said, ‘I can see it’s a car key, Daly. Can you manage a little more? Starting with whose car it fits?’
‘I don’t know, Missus Straker.’
‘You don’t know. Do you know how you came to be in possession of it?’
‘How did you get the key, you little cretin?’
‘Oh. Well, that’s the thing. See, I was standing there and somebody gave it to me.’
‘Minding your own business.’
‘I was, Missus Straker.’
‘And somebody gave you a car key. Handed it to you and said, “This is for you.” Is that what happened? Christmas came early for the Daly family?’
‘No, no.’ Daly laughed. ‘I wouldn’t have taken it, would I?’
‘This BMW comes racing up to the kerb and this guy jumps out and throws us the key and runs away.’ He peered at the sergeant. ‘What’s funny, Missus Straker?’
‘This BMW comes racing up to the kerb and this guy jumps out and throws you the key and runs away. That right?’
‘I bet you can’t describe this guy?’
‘He was going too fast.’
‘Of course he was. But I’ll also bet you did write down the car’s registration number.’
Daly pulled a piece of paper from his pocket, but Straker held up a hand to stop him. ‘No, Daly. I’ll tell you.’ She read a series of letters and numbers from a pad on her desk. ‘Is that right?’
Daly nodded. ‘That’s amazing. How did you know?’
‘Of course, you’ve no idea who the car belongs to.’
‘Umm…no. I don’t. Haven’t.’
‘Well, never mind. You’ve done your civic duty, Daly. I’m sure the owner will be delighted when we tell him. Might even come round yours to thank you personally, I shouldn’t wonder.’
‘You won’t give him my name?’
‘Why on earth not? There might be a reward in it for you.’
‘Please, Missus Straker. Don’t give him my name.’
‘Wipe all your fingerprints off the wheel, did you? When you found out whose car it was you’d nicked?’
‘This isn’t funny, Missus Straker.’
‘Not to you, I can see that. Hunt reported the car stolen an hour ago and he is steaming.’ The sergeant leaned across the counter. ‘Do you think you’d better speak to CID?’
‘CID? What for?’‘To try again? With a new story?’
Daly stared at this woman who smiled as she tormented him. Then he stepped back from the counter, turned and made for the door. As he left he broke into a run, but the two approaching constables had seen Straker’s signal and had no difficulty in seizing Daly’s arms, turning him round and frogmarching him back into the police station.
‘Well done, lads,’ said Straker. ‘Kevin Daly, I’m arresting you on suspicion of taking a conveyance without the owner’s consent. You do not have to say anything but it may harm your defence if you do not mention when questioned something which you later rely on in Court. Anything you do say may be given in evidence. Get him printed and stick him in a cell till someone from the top floor has time to talk to him.’
On her radio, the half time whistle blew. One of the constables nodded his head towards it. ‘How are they doing?’
‘They’re losing. Like Mister Daly here.’
Two hours later, Newcastle had been relegated and the mayhem foreseen by Sergeant Straker was indeed breaking out, but a Detective Inspector still found time to visit Regus Hunt’s lawyer and say they’d like him to arrange for Hunt to come in for questioning.
‘Mister Hunt reported his BMW stolen. We’ve charged a young waster called Kevin Daly with TDA. It’s not called that any more, but that’s what it is.’
‘I’m sure Mister Daly will be pleased to have his car back, Inspector. But why does he need to be questioned?’
‘We’d like him to explain the presence of a quantity of drugs we found in the car.’
Mister Henry stared at the Inspector. A smile played around the edges of his full mouth. ‘Is it really likely,’ he asked, ‘that Mister Hunt would have reported his car stolen as quickly as he did if he knew there were drugs in it?’
‘Well, the drugs exist. I’ve seen them.’
‘Yes. I see. Were you actually there when they were discovered?’
‘Not at the time, no.’
‘They were shown to you afterwards.’
Mister Henry picked up a cigar and pushed the box across the coffee table in front of him. ‘Cohiba Esplendidos,’ he said, snipping the end with a cutter. ‘They’ll set you back more than seven hundred pounds for a box of twenty-five. Possibly the best cigar there is. Try one?’
The Inspector took a cigar and pushed it into his inside pocket. ‘I’ll keep it for later.’
‘One of your colleagues,’ said Mister Henry, ‘always reminds me of a vulture. Keeps his head tucked under his wing. Except when he wants to ask a personal question. Is he the one running this case?’
‘If you mean who I think you mean, then yes, he is.’
‘He’s never been a friend of Mister Hunt’s. I suppose he refused police bail?’
‘He wanted to. The Super said he couldn’t.’
‘So Daly’s at home?’
‘Right at this moment, I believe he’s on a bus to Middlesbrough. He has a sister there. He has to return at ten on Tuesday.’
‘But of course you haven’t told me that.’
‘I’m not even here. The official invitation will come by phone.’
‘Well, thank you for the courtesy visit, Inspector. I’ll wait for the phone call and I’ll bring Mister Hunt in immediately after lunch tomorrow.’
Four years is a long time, and a great deal can change. In October 2013, Newcastle United were back in the Premiership and now it was Sunderland who sat on the bottom rung, fearing the drop. Toon Army tempers were as sweet as they are ever likely to get. With no witness to confirm that the drugs belonged to Regus Hunt (which in fact they did not, having been placed in his car by the policeman who looked like a vulture), the case against him was abandoned. The Inspector who called on Mister Henry had received a box of Cohibas together with ten thousand pounds in cash. Police regulations required him to return the gift and report it to his superiors, but the donor was anonymous and he preferred to follow an alternative set of rules which, though unofficial, were more generally recognised: he smoked the cigars and used the money to clear his credit card debts. Another box of cigars reached the Superintendent, who dealt with them in the same way.
And Kevin Daly was never seen again. Somewhere on the mile walk from Newport Road in Middlesbrough, where the bus dropped him, to his sister’s home, he vanished. His sister thought about reporting his disappearance, but why? She didn’t care where he was, and she was pretty sure the Police wouldn’t.
In any case, their father had drummed a simple rule into them both from earliest childhood. Never tell the Police anything. It can lead to nothing but pain.
Zappa’ Mam’s a Slapper is available here in paperback (the price includes postage and packing, no matter where in the world you may be.
Elmore Leonard was a writer’s writer. When he died recently, he left some good advice behind him.
Dear God, I’m glad I’m not a poet. There are differences between writers—you might say A is better than B but not quite in the same class as C, but A and B are still readable—but a poet is in the top rank or nothing. And almost none of them make the top rank.
Is there, today, a better poet writing in English than Carol Ann Duffy? I don’t think so. I was reading last night through old Poetry Reviews (as you do, that’s right) and I came across this, which I had almost forgotten, published in 1999. How could anyone forget this?
If you prefer to hear the poet read it, she’s on YouTube here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zKMMH24bRUA
(PS: If I’m glad not to be a poet, I’m even more glad, now, not to be married to Aesop).
By Christ, he could bore me for Purgatory. He was small
didn’t prepossess. So he tried to impress. Dead men,
Mrs Aesop, he’d say, tell no tales. Well, let me tell you now
that the bird in his hand shat on his sleeve,
never mind the two worth less in the bush. Tedious.
Going out was worst. He’d stand at our gate, look, then leap;
scour the hedgerows for a shy mouse, the fields
for a sly fox, the sky for one particular swallow
that couldn’t make a summer. The Jackdaw according to
him, envied the eagle
Donkeys, would, on the whole, prefer to be
On one appalling evening stroll, we passed an old hare
snoozing in a ditch – he stopped and made a note –
and then, about a mile further on, a tortoise, somebody’s pet,
creeping, slow as a marriage, up the road. Slow
but certain, Mrs Aesop, wins the race. Asshole.
What race? What sour grapes? What silk purse,
sow’s ear, dog in a manger, what big fish? Some days
I could barely keep awake as the story droned on
towards the moral of itself. Action, Mrs A., speaks louder
than words. And that’s another thing, the sex
was diabolical. I gave him a fable one night
about a little cock that wouldn’t crow, a razor-sharp axe
with a heart blacker than the pot that called the kettle.
I’ll cut off your tail, all right, I said, to save my face.
That shut him up. I laughed last, longest.
A number of readers have asked me just how accurate the historical detail in A Just and Upright Man is. Well, it’s a work of fiction. But that doesn’t mean it’s all invented.
It happens in a real place, but I made up the events and most of the people. The Greener and Laws families have been in and around Ryton for a very long time, but none of them did what their namesakes do here. A lot of other names were common in Ryton – Bent, Cowan and Saunders, to name only three of the more prominent ones – but they never did me any harm and I have left them alone. There was never a Rector there called Thomas Claverley. There was a Blakiston, but he was not Lord Ravenshead’s farm agent. If it comes to that, there was never a Lord Ravenshead – I have changed the name from Ravensworth (though the real Baron never had a son called the Earl of Wrekin). The Blacketts, on the other hand, really were the Blacketts. They did live at Matfen Hall and Hoppyland was one of their estates.
There really was a Sticky Bainbridge, and he really did get his nickname because he had a wooden leg, but I have moved him back in time 150 years and relocated him from South Moor to Ryton. The original provided the occasion for one of my Great Uncle Jot’s celebrated one-liners, repeated through three generations, which is how I first heard of him. Martin Wale was never Curate in Ryton. There really was a James Batey in Bolam and he really was a boot maker of repute as well as being my 4 greats grandfather; there was never a blacksmith in Hexham called James Meader.
The story of the disputed tithe on turnips is true. Ambrose Crowley really was the philanthropist described in these pages, though he was a businessman first. The Ryton Church bells really were cast and fitted when I said they were, the total eclipse happened exactly when I say it did, the Piper of Wall really did marry Jean Middlemas when he was ninety and she was twenty-five and the extravagant claims for his physical performance really were made. If someone could make their way here from the Ryton of the 1760s they’d find nothing to question in my description of the food they ate, the furniture they used, the houses they lived in or the clothes they wore. (I’ve actually had emails challenging the suggestion that women in 18th century England wore no underwear below the waist; I assure you, it’s true.
Oh, yes–and their really was a Kate Greener, too. If there hadn’t been, there wouldn’t now be a Me.
I could go on. What it comes down to is: If it is part of the story of murder, mayhem and love, I made it up. If it isn’t – if it is external to all that – it’s true. Whatever true means in this context. History is a fertile ground for the followers of every creed, whether political, religious or sociological. They’re all right, and they’re all wrong. There is a widespread belief that primary sources will take us back to ground zero and show us what really happened. Sometimes that’s so. And sometimes it isn’t. For example, “everyone” knows – and it’s certainly in all the text books I’ve come across – that there were no workhouses in rural parishes in the north east of England till after 1835. But go back to the primary sources and read Ryton parish’s Account Book of Overseers, including Assessments of Poor Rate, Receipts and Memoranda (Durham Registry Office, EP/Ryt 7/1). Woodside Poor House is there, starting in 1759, and the poor were given the choice of entering it or going without assistance. As so often, what everyone knows to be true is, in fact, wrong.
You can, though, read all the primary documents there are and still come up with differing versions of the truth. A Just and Upright Man is mine. Please. Feel free to see things otherwise.
If you want to discuss this, use the Comment space at the foot of this post. Or you can email me on firstname.lastname@example.org