Marlon MacFarlane looked up at Gretl Falber, dressed as a rainbow, and the silence stretched to the extent that Hermione Brown wondered if he had taken root, so arboreal was he—silent, unmoving—and, although loath to intrude, she felt herself growing hysterical, with absurd scenarios running helter-pelter through her mind: MacFarlane was not the new Chieftain, but a ben-feaker who had murdered the true heir and assumed his identity, a counterfeit baronet; he was a homicidal paranoid schizophrenic who would pull out a samurai sword and slay Mrs Falber and then herself before turning himself into the police with the claim that he was being persecuted by these two intrusive women casting aspersions on his family and character; Marlon was actually Gretl's love-child from a youthful fling with David Bowie and he had traced her and come to live in the same block to put emotional—and perhaps financial—pressure on the birth-mother who had abandoned him to a life of misery, Dickensian orphanages, abusive foster-parents, then adoption by a couple of paedophiles who rented him out to their perverted circle of friends; he was a drug-pusher who used his busking act as a cover and he couldn't take his shoe off because a few thousand pounds-worth of crack would give him away to these two busy-bodies - the one confronting him and the other who had followed him—the Cagney and Lacey of Tooting Bec; then Marlon shrugged, knelt on one knee and untied the laces of the offending shoe, took the bag which Mrs Falber still held out to him, stood up, said: "natch," and walked past her and into the entrance lobby; Gretl looked at Hermione with raised eyebrows: "was I right, or was I right? he looked set to just tramp straight in, trailing that filthy stuff across the carpet and up the stairs," and Hermione nodded: "yes, dear, I think you were, I don't know if he was aware of it, or didn't care, but he had no intention of stopping - perhaps I should have spoken up when he stepped in it. . . . ." but Mrs Falber put up her hand again, this time to stop Hermione from speaking: "you saw it happen and from you no word? you followed him and were letting it happen? him, okay, he's a schmuck, but you? from you I would have expected better, oy yoy oy, this world, I don't know where I am any more!" and with that, she turned on her heel, went back inside, letting the front door slam in Hermione's face and when she pushed it open the lobby was empty.
Approaching the flats while still on the open common, Hermione was appalled to see Marlon step right onto a pile of dog poo! she shuddered, looked askance at the lumbering figure, particularly recalled that he had not even tried to avoid it—as she herself did—nor to scrape his shoe clean on the grass, his gait never changed and really, Hermione thought to herself, and not for the first time, what is Gramarye coming to, when dog-people ignore the rights and comforts of other citizens on our Sceptred Isle—more like Septic when you see how much poo is still left, when most of the dog-people she knew carried little bags to collect the deposits—and what kind of person is this MacFarlane who surely saw what he was walking onto? maybe he's autistic, certainly oblivious, and he had recognised her, but never said so before referring to her in several silly songs, that was weird, and now he is the Clan Chieftain, and she wondered if he knew, if no-one—apparently—was aware of his whereabouts, unless he had read it somewhere, or, she supposed, a friend in Canada could have called him but unbeknownst to the family; should she facilitate the search for him? ask Carla to contact Prince Edward Island and tell his aunt, or whoever, where he is presently living, but she didn't even know how long he'd been at the flats; should she initiate a discussion, an interview? obviously, she couldn't invite him into her flat, nor, just as obviously, would she go into his, one of the perks of Covid 19 Social Distancing was that it saved you from having to make excuses for avoiding people, they assumed you were being courteous if you did the wide sweep rather than them, if it was you who crossed the road, saving them the extra distance, they actually thanked you for avoiding them! and of course, the other journalist's fall-back, a cafe or pub, was now history; stand on the pavement with this oaf whose left shoe was still—she could see, and shivered with barely repressed disgust—caked with the muck, surely he would clean it off before going into the lobby, surely? maybe even take it off before going up the three steps to the entrance, demonstrating that he was going to clean it when he got to his flat, surely, surely, surely? and suddenly, a brightshine lifted her mood as Gretl Falber, radiant in lemon trainers, tangerine joggers and with a lime fleecy hoodie, stepped through the door, her platinum wig catching the last rays of the sun before it would be hidden by the trees, and give her her due, Gretl Falber had the omniscience of every Jewish Mamma Hermione had ever known, including her own: "stop!" she cried, imperiously, holding her hand up, palm facing Marlon, "you cannot come up these steps, Marlon, with that shoe in it's present infected condition," pointing with her other hand at the offending object, so that Marlon was obliged to look down, following the direction of her finger and either he was a consummate actor, always ready to ad lib, or he was truly oblivious, he looked, he saw, he jerked his body backwards and away from the cause of Gretl's command, and he swore: "oh fuck! fuck, fuck, fucketty fuck, fuck!" and Gretl's face coloured: "obscenities? in front of two ladies, tut tut, Marlon, better I would expect from the new Chieftain of your Clanship, already, moving with the times notwithstanding, here's a Waitrose bag, put it in there and if you're going to clean it, take it upstairs, if you can't cope with that, put it in the dog poo bin across the road, and don't be so prissy, if women can cope with childbirth and changing nappies day in, day out, you can surely manage one or other of the alternatives, isn't that right, Mrs Brown?" including Hermione for the first time although she had already referred to her as one of the offended ladies when MacFarlane had sounded more like he could have Tourette syndrome rather than Autism but then, as Hermione knew from her younger brother, Jack, the Spectrum was extremely wide and inclusive.
Cumbrously, Marlon negotiated the path across the Common, particularly when finding his way—if one desired to respect social distance etiquette—blocked by an obstinate pensioner who disregarded all instruction, guidance or advice given and remained steadfast, in the middle of the path, studying the agrology of the Bec and pointing out—to anyone passing, whether they wanted to be told or not—that in the last war, this whole area was allotments, Digging for Victory the campaign, and according to a scientific analysis of the composition of the soil, substrata, elevation, drainage, shade, aspect to the sun and the colour of Old Mother Riley's bloomers, here it was potatoes, there swedes, there carrots, cabbage, runner beans, peas, cucumber, marrow and what not; he might have been giving a speech from one of the Henriad, and Hermione recognised him as an actor whom she had interviewed before the Lockdown and who had in fact played Prince Hal in his youth and Falstaff more recently and she remembered him telling her about open-air productions of Shakespeare put on in this natural amphitheatre so, when MacFarlane seemed to be preparing for a confrontation, she called out: "we can cut across the grass Marlon, go right here," and was relieved when he did so and she even received a friendly wave from the actor who evidently remembered her, calling out: "keep safe, Mrs Brown, we don't want to go viral, now, do we," and she waved back and followed Marlon towards their block of flats, just beyond the stand of trees at the boundary.
And as they trudged along the near-deserted Tooting Broadway, Hermione sent a message to her researcher, Carla Costard: 'what can you find out about Marlon MacFarlane aka Spring-heeled Jack, busker?' confident that Carla was the one person who would come up with the information she needed, while MacFarlane himself, whom she was keeping a steady three metres behind, continued a colloquy which needed little input from herself: ". . . . .it's not that I don't listen to the radio, I mean actively don't, I don't go out of my way to avoid hearing it, so it's more of a passive don't, I'm not totes against it, if you see what I mean, if I accidentally found myself hearing it—as opposed to properly listening—that wouldn't bother me in the least, but it's the hectoring tone you sometimes get, is that fair? hectoring, vel sim? didn't people used to call it Nanny BBC, as in 'Nanny knows best,' which is a pretty paternalistic thing, or I suppose it would have to be maternalistic, then, wouldn't it, cos if your lot is Nanny, then the rest of us, all of us, your audience, whether we're listening or not, are like the little kids in a nursery, believing everything you tell us, cos you know best, is that fair?" which was when she interjected: "of course it's not bloody fair, you moron," but he hadn't heard her, the wind from the Common snatching her words as they spilled out and scattering them like autumn leaves, and he kept his pace steady but his own words were lost in the roar of a passing ambulance, heading to St George's, which was when Hermione's phone vibrated and she glanced at the screen, a reply from Carla—which was bloody fast—she must have been desperate for something to do, the Lockdown playing fast and loose with everyone's nerves, it read: 'Marlon MacFarlane, 29, from Prince Edward Island, Nova Scotia, a street busker, inherited the Chieftainship of Clan MacFarlane, from his uncle, Sir Parsnip MacFarlane, on the latter's death last Wednesday—no-one knows Marlon's whereabouts, do you?'
Now that's interesting, thought Hermione Brown, suppressing her natural inclination to give a Bronx cheer—or a raspberry tart, the original Cockney rhyming slang for the derisive effect—so he refers to himself as phenom and then me, too, well you don't need an alienist—or a Weather Man—to know what way the wind's blowing here, especially with that same rhyming form of name—Marlon and Parlane, very similar indeed—but she isn't going to take any chances: "well, I don't know if I quite live up to Mrs Falber, Gretl's, praise, I'm just a sumpter, that's a BBC nickname for a broadcasting packhorse, you know, someone's off sick, or on holiday, so who's going to fill in? give sumpter Brown and the rester Lay, that'll cover it, we're the ones who might have regular work but we're not quite full-time and we hoover up all the crumbs that fall from the schedulers' tables," and seeing him relax a little, the defensive hold of his body as poised for a dash to find cover ease into something more confident, she says: "if you've no more audience, we could maybe walk back together and you can carry one of my shopping bags, here's the heaviest, but social distance, mind, you go ahead and I'll follow."
"From Gretl," he gasped, as if fearful of her, and she asked: "who the fuck is Gretl?" which rather took him another pace aback: "she's Mrs Falber, in Number 1, she told me you were the new lady on the ground floor, and I saw you through the window," and saw the suspicion in her eyes: "are you a fucking Peeping Tom?" and he hoped no-one else could hear her, but by now most of the shoppers had left the area: "no, no, through my own window, I'm on the second floor, Number 6, when I was having a footbath—it's sore on my feet, busking—I saw you coming home from the shops, and realised you were the Mrs Brown who Gretl had mentioned, she said your husband and daughter are in Northampton and you're stuck here because of the Lockdown and they can't move down yet and you're a famous journalist with the BBC and you're working from home, and Gretl says she's heard you doing Any Questions and Desert Island Discs and you're, how did she put it, 'one of the most phenom female broadcasters of her generation' and I can tell she's dead chuffed with having you next door," regurgitating everything old Gretl Falber had told him over coffee-and, "and when I saw you coming out of Iceland I recognised you and you looked tired and kind of sad so I thought I'd try to cheer you up with a joke and a song, I mean I'm locuplete with material, if I'm not out here, performing," he gave the word a special emphasis, she noticed, "I'm up in my flat, working on new songs and jokes, most of the shoppers here are local and they're coming every day, so I can't just do the same numbers over and over, they'd get bored," and she looked at him quizzically, as if she was thinking something which might be ominous for him, "but I sometimes get requests, for kid's birthdays or an old couple's anniversary or something, and if there's a crowd I've always got my accordion, and he turned to show it hanging on his back, like a rucksack, she hadn't noticed it before: "what's your name?" she asked, and he said, a trifle uncertainly: "well, my stage-name's Spring-heeled Jack, cos when I started in the business I did somersaults and fancy jumps and things, but my real name's MacFarlane, Marlon MacFarlane."
"The majority of the punters consider me to be a musical phenom," he said, "entirely self-taught and I make up the songs as I go along," but she was implacable: "that's obvious," she snarled through clenched teeth and he consoled himself with the thought that she was probably a musical vanilla who couldn't distinguish between a flat and a sharp, forgetting that he himself didn't know the difference, and then he brightened: "there was this Japanese guy here yesterday, painted a picture of me to hang in the loo," and she watched him, out of the corners of her eyes, wondering if he was one of those Care in the Community people she'd been warned by her sister Euphonia to avoid: "some of them look like Bren Gunn, you know, from Treasure Island, all hairy faces, but others look just like you and me," and Hermione had stared back at Euphonia, unsure if there was an insult in there somewhere, but then decided that by including herself, her sister can't have been trying to belittle Hermione, she tuned back in to what the busker was saying: "not actually in the loo, it was in the lieu of giving me money, cos he only had the yen, know what I mean?" but she hadn't the faintest idea what he was talking about, only the image of a Japanese artist, with wispy facial hair and wearing a dinner plate upside down on his head, dipping a brush in ink and with just two or three lines, portraying this dork in a sumi-e, or was that plural? a sumo-e? no that was a great big fat wrestler, and then she wondered why she was even wasting a second's thought on him, when she could. . . . .be doing nothing at all. . . . . as she realised that this unwanted encounter was the nearest she had had to a conversation with another person, in person rather than via her phone, in three weeks of the Lockdown, albeit at double the recommended Social Distance, because she wasn't sure if singing, or at least what he obviously thought of as singing, projected the virus further than normal breathing, or talking, but then she realised what he had sung: "how'dya know my name?" she demanded, and the man—possibly startled by her vehemence—took a step even further back and gawped!
"Oh, we'll divvy up the boiling frog,
Poke it in the belly, feed it to the dog,
Make an armisonous clatter with the Herald's staff,
Ifuceus you'll get a good laugh!"
still strumming his ukelele and giving Hermione Brown a look that would have turned milk, presumably because either he thought that was how a Folk Singer would behave, or it was the way he behaved all the time himself anyway, but Mrs Brown was having none of it, pointedly turning her back on him and studying the Sunday bus timetable which was pasted on the wall alongside the closed Tickets & Enquiries window.
"Don't be such a pleb, Mummy Brown, or someone with arbitrium may order you deflagrated—that's how they deal with Witchery Woo in this place, you wouldn't like it and you with such a bonny wee lass," and he took out his ukelele and began to strum along as he sang: "oh Mrs Brown you've got a lovely daughter, so don't you know you really shouldn't oughter. . . . ."
Meanwhile, on the A train, Benny Broigus and Mamie Goldfisch were anonymous travellers noticed by no-one, as they hurtled beneath the city, seeming to have no connection to the incidents that had propelled them to take this headlong journey into an unknown future, they still held hands, saying little, communicating by the slightest touch, as Mamie smiled and her skin seemed to say, to Benny's: "you should see your phiz," and in response, as his free hand rubbed absently at his face, Mamie sensed that he was offering to enfeoff himself to her, surrendering his separateness, to be as one with her, and this she acknowledged with the slightest inflection of her pinkie, for they were truly in the umbra of their shared past, no longer strangers, no longer individuals, but a couple with a single purpose—to survive; then Benny stirred and looked at Mamie, enveloping her in the intensity of his gaze, and she blushed to her roots, for she knew what he was thinking, and she nodded, and with that, their future was sealed and they sloughed off their old identities as, riding into the wide blue yonder, they became Mr and Mrs Simon and Simone Pure, till death us do part.
The First Thing That Happened was, Benny Broigus pulled out a snub nosed Smith & Wesson and shot both the cops—not seriously, though of course Officers O'Halloran and O'Flaherty thought it was pretty damn serious enough—and grabbed Miss Mamie Goldfisch who had been on her way to work at the NY City Department of Redundancy Department (Waste Management, Refuse and Salvage Office) declaring that he was holding her only as a hostage and guaranteed that she would come to no harm from him—which seemed to imply to Miss Goldfisch that someone else meant to harm her, so she started screaming until Broigus told her to shut the fuck up if she wanted to see tomorrow, and that worked—and then The Second Thing That Happened was that a Professor of Wordsworthiana, Herman Hermit, who was driving an old, beat-up Dodge roadster, saw cops lying in the road and a weird-looking guy with a gun holding his sister Mamie like some kind of prisoner and knew, in a flash, that only he could save her, so he swung the wheel and swerved towards the commotion, knocking down and running over Chaim Chadband and his brother-in-law, Sam Spiegelman, before crashing into a fire hydrant, the result of which was that he—Hermit—was catapulted through the windscreen and landed on top of Felix Flabbergast and Sparks Marks where they lay in state on the sidewalk, as a result of which The Third Thing That Happened was, Benny and Mamie got such a fright that they both ran, hand in hand, down the stairs to the subway station and, finding a train in and just about to leave—they knew not whence, nor gave a whit—they threw themselves aboard, in the course of which Benny dropped his revolver which fell between the platform and the train, landing down by the near-side rail, unnoticed by anyone, but meanwhile The Fourth Thing That Happened was, in an office forty stories up and directly across the street from this mayhem and carnage, twenty-year-old Oscar Levantine had been in a hypnagogic state at the hands of his Therapist, Dr Lemuel Gulliverra but, before he was quite fully under, he felt or perhaps heard—his statements to the police later were contradictory—the zipper on his pants being slid down and cool fingers seemed to crawl inside and find his dick which, shocking to young Oscar—and he didn't put this in any of his statements—turned into a boner and he was instantly ashamed and awake and threw Dr Gulliverra off him, following up with a series of punches and kicks, driving the therapist towards the window, through which he was then pushed, and it was when Oscar leaned out to see what would happen to Dr Gulliverra that he saw there had been some kind of road accident down below, with a number of bodies scattered hither and thither and, being a public-spirited young man, he used the Doctor's office telephone to call for an ambulance, before adding: "better make it two, man, its a totally rad scene goin on down there!"
Unfortunately, by waking, MacFarlane missed what happened next: two passing roustabouts en route to The World's Fair, managed to pull Felix Flabbergast and Sparks Marks out from the underground electricity junction-room, assisted by the illumination of a dozen Zippo lighters, wielded by concerned pedestrians, laying the pair of them on the sidewalk, legs spraddled, arms akimbo, which was when Chaim Chadband rushed to their aid; pointing an accusing finger at Benny Broigus, he asserted that he had seen everything and: "as an attorney-at-law representing these two injured parties," placing a business card in each of the victims' open right hands and closing their fingers over the cards, "in expiation of these injuries caused by your homicidally dangerous, careless and distracted perambulation, we are suing you for a million bucks and my brother-in-law, Sam Spiegelman here," producing said gentleman and introducing him to the witnesses, "is the Professor of Geodesy at State U and he will testify as to your blatant disregard for your surroundings and the innocent parties who might and did suffer life-changing injuries as a result—Officers!" and hailing two passing cops who were trying to avoid becoming involved in what was obviously not what they wanted to have as any of their business but now, with thirty or forty pairs of eyes homed in on them, O'Halloran and O'Flaherty didn't have much choice, so ambled across to see if they could wrap whatever it was up in two minutes - but they hadn't bargained on the sudden change of everything!
Chaim Chadband was one of those guys who are so obsequious and unctuous, you have an urge to rub your hand down the seam of your pants to wipe the grease off—and that's even without having shaken hands with them—and so strongly did Felix Flabbergast experience this urge, that he was quite overcome with emotion and stood frozen to the pavement, staring in a mixture of shock and awe, with his claw-like fingers unconsciously pandiculating in time with his heart-beats, and that's how come Benny Broigus, stomping furiously along—always against the flow of the traffic at that time in the morning—head down, arms pumping, like a man carrying a sign, Keep Outa My Way, slammed into Felix and sent him cannoning into Chaim, who fell down an open manhole and landed on top of Sparks Marks whose screwdriver was dragged down the circuit-board, severing every connection, plunging Manhattan into darkness and what seemed like a Nuclear Winter and a silence broken only by what sounded like the chirruping of a million cicadas, as drivers did what they are pre-programmed to do in such an unlikely situation, pounding their horns till their hands bleed; and such was the dream of Sir Parlane MacFarlane, as the anaesthetic wore off and he began to wake.
As the great Yellow Submarine—in truth it was Golden, but who's counting?—sank to it's cruising depth so, under the anaesthetic, Sir Parlane MacFarlane went down, his mumbling voice—to Denzil's ears—still introspective, if unintelligible, baloney: "they wouldn't deem me, no, no, not a Chadband, never claimed to be ruly in my puff, not a hypocritical bone in my body, down, down, down, down, down among the dead men, oh, Denzil, this is lovely stuff, they should give it out on the National Health, dreams of streams, streams of dreams, is it a chicken or an egg? ha ha ha ha, you dunno wot you missin, so mebbe am ur permeated by evil, so fuckin wot? ah micht be bad, burram honest aboorit, so am ur, pit thon in yer pipe an smokit, tears for souvenirs wis aw ye left me, geeza nuvva hauf, makkit Laffroy, no thass no richt Laffrog, oh fer fuksake, slowly, slowly, Laphraoigh," and after the effort of getting the name of his favourite Malt right, "g'night, china's wake me when, sumfin, dunno, who cares? zzzzzzzzzzzzzz............." and Denzil made the first incision.
"I don't nimrodize, do I Denzil?" asked Sir Parlane, looking out over the sullen waters of the English Channel, "I'm not unreasonable, am I?" and the thrummmm of the submarine's engines below th surface vibrated through their feet: "oh, no, Boss," assured Denzil, "you treat all the boys the same, equal rights, no grandfather rules for the old timers and longer hours with less pay for the newbies," and MacFarlane nodded, then: "and we all sit round the table for the seder, no favouritism?" and Denzil conceded: "that's the truth, Boss," and was rewarded by a pat on the shoulder: "but if I came across a piece of daddock, you know, rotten wood, I'd have to cut it out, yes?" and Denzil was indignant: "let me do it for you, Boss, that's what we're here for, so you don't have to do everything yourself, like before The Ring!" and MacFarlane chuckled, "oh, those were strange times, Denzil, before The Ring, before Dominic and I, on one fateful night, sealed the fate of the world, and all thanks to a Map - not just any map—The Map of Time and Space; it unleashed the Freedom to be anywhere, at any time—at the same time—to know beforehand what would happen afterwards, to escape from any serious difficulty, even death - particularly Death! if it hadn't been for that Map. . . . ." and Denzil offered MacFarlane a cigarette, lit it with a gold Zippo, and said: ". . . . .we wouldn't be here now?" and MacFarlane nodded: "not wouldn't, Denzil, couldn't; I would have been dead for seven hundred years by now, when were you born?" and Denzil winked, "you know fine well, Boss, I haven't been born yet," and he relaxed, the Boss's normal service seemed to have been resumed, "so, will we go down to Theatre, and swap your face?" was met with a cheerful smile: "you're the only surgeon I would trust with my life, Denzil, let's do it, and set course for Banna Strand."
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