Chapter one of a novel about big city life.
Capital Cities are alive; they draw in their citizens for food, like the whale does with plankton. In this they make no attempt to discriminate; all those who venture too close are sucked in, assimilated, changed or rejected as they react to or with the city’s digestive juices. Enter the Capital as you would a phase of existence. Move from puberty towards adulthood in like vein. Transition is much the same as that wherever you go - you can no more change change than you can anything else. They say if you are tired of London you are tired if life, when in fact the quintessential Capital city is peopled by so many tired, lost souls that life in any meaningful sense has long left behind.
They will tell a much different tale if you ask them outright. They might admit to being different at different times of the day -at work or at leisure for example-during the day as opposed to at night, but they will not concede that the city, the Capital, a place only, has them in its grip and will not let go, unless to let go is also to designate as examined but found wanting. The city thanks you for the effort, citizen-food, but you weren’t good enough, not to the city’s taste at all, in fact. Or you could die and cheat the system that way, the ultimate act of defiance for food, become unappetising, uneatable.
Some cities are meticulously planned, laid out on a grid, for instance, like New York, and most New World places, or radially like Paris. London invented itself to confound and confuse the hardiest of travellers with its twisted, winding lanes and diabolically numbered streets. Would any other city in the world take pride in displaying on its maps the grand sum of thirteen High Roads for instance? Did the great and good run out of names for their thoroughfares, so that only those with a lifetime’s study could hope ever to find their way? It must be left up to dedicated students only then, and Black Cab Drivers to navigate. To nobody else is it given to know the ins and outs of the organism that London has become. Not police, nor traffic wardens; not even tour guides, who at best know only their little well trodden walks through Dickens’ London, or where John Lennon bought his guitars just off Charing Cross Road.
How to survive in this Capital then, how not to be consumed? Some questions have no answer, or ought never to be asked. Perhaps the answer is unknowable. Perhaps the question, once posed, gives rise to so many more questions that it wraps itself in mystery. Once you can describe a mystery, lay out its boundaries in some way, you change its very nature. A mystery turns into a problem. Problems are delineable and therefore, theoretically, solvable.
For somebody like Spooner the secret was one of engagement, involvement, or rather not engaging, refusing to get involved. He lived out his life in a setting of his own making, a one-man film noir, in which he was actor, director, story teller. Yet nothing was ever as it seemed. He inhabited a zone rather than any time and place, and in that zone became a character in everyone else’s life instead of having a life of his own. An existence of such detachment, without passion or any cumbersome emotion, uninvolved in the day to day, had its advantages, however, as Spooner flitted in and out of view; calling on friends, or meeting up by accident in a pub, then disappearing for months on end. Ask Spooner the question then. His answer: ‘Survival? No mystery. No problem.’
There was action, what he called days on the job, punctuation marks only in a far from ordinary way of life, and longer, fuzzier periods when the mystery surrounding his livelihood, personal attachments and general whereabouts only seemed to deepen. A network of carefully cultivated contacts in the horse racing world - owners, bloodstock agents and various other employees and hangers on - had provided Spooner with a steady if unspectacular income for a little over years. His circle of friends was only vaguely aware of this and certainly knew none of the details, Spooner made absolutely sure of that fact. A separation between work and play had to be maintained as an assurance against losing his sources of information. That was what he sold these contacts, his guarantee of discretion, anonymity at all costs – and as hefty a slice of the proceeds as would keep the news coming his way without making him seem at all venal or his contacts greedy.
Actual sums of money were never mentioned, but percentages of the profits found their way to the right people after each successful investment. Investment was a word Spooner liked to use regularly with regard to his activities. It lent the whole enterprise a sort of respectability otherwise reserved for more highly regarded businesses. Herein lay one of the essential paradoxes of Spooner’s life. On the one hand there was the man of mystery, the cypher, the shadowy figure on the edge of everything; and on the other hand there was his craving for recognition – by whom he was never quite sure – of wanting to belong on his own terms.
Then there was the name. Everybody called him Spooner. Nobody knew his real name unless he wanted them to know it. It had started even before he had left school, where his nickname had been Stuart the Spoon, which later became Spooner, and came about because of his habit of taking spoons as souvenirs wherever he went.
Firsty, the school cafeteria suffered, then local haunts, British Rail buffets, before he graduated to restaurants and then finally hotels. Spooner’s collection had been enhanced when he began to frequent the bars and casinos of the West End of London, and when he finally gave up it was at the top, strictly five star establishments, like The Dorchester and Claridges.
In almost twelve years of gathering these trophies, there had never been any occasion when Spooner had been close to being caught. He was the cool one all right, and the legend had only grown with the passing of time. In the pub which Spooner used the most, The Thornbury Arms, his greatest triumph, the taking of a silver ladle from the punch bowl at a reception being held at a City Livery Company, was told sometimes to visitors by one of his acquaintances in hushed tones, as Spooner was pointed out to them. Eamonn, the Thornbury’s landlord, had had the idea of displaying the thing behind the bar, but it had come to nothing.
That was all a long time ago in Spooner’s estimation, but it felt good to him to possess this further contradictory aspect to his perceived self – the local celebrity who kept his identity a secret. There is a true symmetry in such simple oppositions, and the beauty of it was not lost on him. But the magic had changed, in form if not in substance; the game now was played out on a grander scale, in a rich mans playground comprising the bars of Mayfair, the paddocks and racecourses of the Sport of Kings, all juxtaposed with a hundred seedy betting shops in Soho, Marylebone and other parts of west London. Spooner’s contacts were from all over the capital, from all different walks of life, yet he had managed in each case to gain their confidence, or at least probe them to find a weakness for money, drink, or simply to reach out and give them the attention and companionship that some humans crave.
In return he was rewarded for his care and attention to detail with privileged information, enough of which had proved to be genuine, what Spooner liked to call the ‘real, insider stuff’. The ‘job’ was carried out with military precision, money spread around town by Spooner himself and his friend since school days, Gerrard ‘Jed’ Murphy – twenty pounds here and there, perhaps fifty they were well known in the betting outlet, or were seen as ‘Mugs’ by the betting shop manager.
After an unusually quiet first two weeks in August, Spooner had heard from a sympathetic and malleable barman that a certain Arab-owned filly was expected to run well on her debut and possibly win at good odds at York races. News like this always made Spooner sit up and listen. The source was impeccable, the owner was well known to him, not the stereotypical oil-rich Arab Sheikh but a hard working businessman whom Spooner genuinely liked and respected. They would meet at Harry’s Bar, South Audley Street, in Mayfair at lunchtime. Maimoun was always there on the day one of his beloved animals was going to run. He liked to chat about the racing and breeding business in general; casually mention that he had a runner going later in the day, and discuss its chances over lunch with his fellow owners. Spooner had earned an entree to their circle because of his experience in and knowledge of the betting market, and was often consulted by one or other of the members of this informal club.
But all that was for later. In the meantime Spooner had his race day ritual to go through – small insignificant things in reality, but all done on the day, in the same order, one by superstitious one. He wouldn’t feel right doing the job if he missed out the slightest one of them. Firstly he got up extra early partly from habit and partly as a result of being too excited to sleep much the night before. Spooner didn’t consider himself to be one of life’s worriers, but he spent much of the night before a job going over and over the route he was going to take to place his money, how many shops Jed would be able to visit in the City and around Holborn and The Strand, how much time they would have after Maimoon gave them the nod that all was well with the horse.
The Race on this particular day was due off at 3.40, giving them maybe two hours to get on. Spooner also rehearsed how much he would place in each outlet, who was likely to be in which bookies shops mid-afternoon, how much small talk he would have to produce in order not to give the game away. There existed a hard core of racing acquaintances for whom Spooner was thought to be a very shrewd operator, and he had to guard against being pumped for information. For this reason and to keep his face in the forefront of the shop managers’ minds, he would call into shops when there wasn’t a job on, placing the odd bet on nothing more than guesswork. It didn’t do to win all the time. The manager would soon get wise and look twice at his bets or refer them to the district office for confirmation if he perceived Spooner to be a too regular winner and obviously the recipient of what they referred to as live information. This was a very important part of the game in Spooner’s view, the laying of false trails, giving the impression that when he did win it was merely his turn. There were just two shop managers whom he knew personally, and he would never use their shops to pull anything without giving them advance warning, so that they could have a bet themselves.
The routine consisted then of getting up very early. He would invariably take a long walk, sometimes to Brockley Rise, or Catford or Peckham Rye. This was an integral part of most of his days, but on the day of a job the walk took on the added significance of focusing Spooner on the task ahead, and he normally returned well relaxed. He always had a longer shower than usual on these special days and made sure that he shaved with a sharp shiny new blade. He then had three cups of coffee, never more or less, dressed in a pristine white cotton shirt that he insisted on ironing himself. The ritual was complete when he had put on his lucky dark grey suit, hand made black leather shoes and either had worn his Burberry raincoat or draped it over his left forearm. In any event the raincoat always accompanied him on these days in the West End. It was talismanic, a gesture to the crowd who would be his fellow diners at Harry’s Bar later on in the day that he could wear what they wore, was as comfortable in their uniform as in their company and haunts.
What did this say about Spooner? In no sense could he be labelled a snob. He was an operator, a player in what some would assume was a trivial or unimportant game, and he knew the rules as well as any of the other players. You simply did what was asked, wore whatever was expected and exercised the level of discretion that was appropriate no matter in which social milieu you found yourself. It didn’t matter to him that his background was totally different from theirs or that they were living the life that he was dipping into for the day. The important thing for Spooner was the outcome of his day’s exertions. The bottom line justified any amount of dallying in the company of these people. The shallow chattering and exchange of pleasantries was as necessary as it was meaningless.
Once Spooner was dressed to his satisfaction there was a final, long standing ritual to perform, a sort of game within a game, which Jed and Spooner had been playing since their schooldays. The idea was toselect a meeting place and time, and then meet there on time, spending as little money as possible in the process. This time it was Spooner’s turn to pick the venue. He sent Jed a text message: ‘Marble Arch Traffic Island – 10.30’, then walked the quarter of a mile or so Brockley station, picking up a Racing Post and a Guardian on the way. There was a train every ten minutes to London Bridge. Spooner had plenty of time, over an hour before the rendezvous with Jed, enough in fact to allow him the luxury of missing a train he could easily have caught had he hurried across the bridge and down the platform.
He decided to read up on Maimoon’s filly to fill the interval to the next train. Interesting summary of the horses breeding, thought Spooner: well bred, would be suited by the distance, but didn’t cost very much at the yearling sales and the overall opinion of the paper was that the winner of the race would come from elsewhere, her forecast odds being ten to one. She wouldn’t start at those odds of course, he reasoned, since if he had heard that the filly was working well at home and likely to run well today, then it was also a safe bet that the bookmakers also knew. Their racing intelligence was as good as anybody’s in the game.
No, Spooner decided he would be happy with half those odds, and boarded the train in almost buoyant mood. Six or seven minutes to London Bridge Station, just about right to read through the paper for information on the other fancied horses in the race. As he opened the paper again his phone beeped. A text message from Jed – ‘tickets being checked @ London Bridge’. This could be just the sort of stunt that Jed might pull to put him off, thought Spooner. He couldn’t take the chance of picking up a ten pound on the spot fine, so decided to get off at New Cross Gate and take the Tube to Whitechapel, replying simply with a ‘TA’ on his mobile as he got off. The Tube was waiting on Platform One. Spooner got on board and decided to jump off at Canada Water, change on to the Jubilee Line and go to Bond Street, from where it was a short walk up Oxford Street to Marble Arch.
Changing routes gave Spooner the time to work out what he intended to say to Maimoon later. There was no need for any kind of pretence between them. Spooner rightly believed that there was a mutual respect at work in their relationship, however Maimoon did like to talk, often at length, and dance around the subject somewhat. It was just his way really. Spooner suspected that Maimoon thought it amusing to lead people on, especially those in the peripheral crowd at Harry’s Bar and Crockfords Casino in Curzon Street. They only spoke to him when they thought he might tell them something to their advantage, otherwise he was considered by the Gulf Arabs to be a trader, and therefore beneath them somehow. Maimoon new this of course and explained once to Spooner that it was one of life’s ironies that these people with their crude guttural Arabic speech and tribal ways and attitudes should feel superior to him, a Levantine, sophisticated, western- thinking businessman.
Spooner changed tubes at Canada Water and sat in an empty carriage. He came out of his day dreaming with the sudden realisation that Jed had indeed pulled a stroke. How did Jed know there was a snap ticket check at London Bridge? Travelling from Lewisham, he wouldn’t necessarily get off there, and even if he did, he would have had to go through the checkpoint himself, would have been discovered as a fare dodger himself, so he and Spooner would have been even, a ten pound fine each. ‘Done up like a kipper’, Spooner mouthed to his reflection in the tube train window.
Half an hour later he was walking up Oxford Street, laughing to himself. It was ten twenty by Selfridges clock, perfect timing. Spooner negotiated the maze of subways and approached the row of benches on the Marble Arch island, scattering a crowd of pigeons as he approached the seat where Jed was sat, legs outstretched, hands clasped behind his head, very wide grin on his face. Spooner reached the bench and aimed a playful kick at Jed’s feet, before sitting down next to him.
“Well, Spooner, my son, eventful journey?” Jed was very pleased with himself.
“ Nice one, Murphy. You had me going there for a bit. You should have seen me motor to catch the tube at New Cross Gate. Had to push a few hairy art students out the way, know what I mean?”
“So, how far did you get before the sheer brilliance of my genius dawned on you – Whitechapel, Aldgate perhaps?” Jed offered Spooner a cigarette, which he took, and a light, which he refused, preferring to use his own lighter. They remained facing towards Park Lane. The sun was climbing in the sky and it was turning into a very warm day already. Spooner enjoyed a couple of long drags from his cigarette before replying:
“ No mate, I was on the Jubilee line when it hit me that you were having a go. Then I went on to Bond Street, told the girl at the barrier I must have dropped my ticket somewhere and she gave an excess ticket. Said I’d got on at Waterloo, gave her a big, broad smile, she just smiled back, cheeky like, and took my dough. That’s it really.”
“ Right then, I win I believe. I was already on the train when you sent the text about the meeting, the time and place. Fast one to Victoria. Got off. Walked here. Took me about forty minutes, along Grosvenor Place to Hyde Park Corner, then a nice, slow stroll through the park.”
“So it’s my treat then.” said Spooner, as he stood up and stamped on his cigarette. “Where To?” He had already set off towards the Arch itself. Jed caught him up and decided:
“Cumberland Hotel, the coffee shop.”
“Fine. Let’s go.” Spooner was beginning to refocus on the main event. The conversation however remained light-hearted as they picked their way back through the confusion of subterranean walkways and across to The Cumberland Hotel. Jed asked him if and when he had managed to ‘borrow’ any spoons from there. Spooner recounted a school trip to The Science Museum, when he had gone into the museum by one door and straight out again by another; walked through Kensington Gardens, sunbathed for a while, then wandered down the Bayswater Road. A coach full of tourists had emptied at the side entrance in Cumberland Gate and he had simply joined them, popped into the Carvery and helped himself to a couple of dessert spoons from the buffet table.
They smiled at one another as they went though that same door and headed for the Italian coffee shop. More Coffee. That’s what Spooner needed right now and he turned down the Danish pastries on offer. This didn’t deter Jed from taking two, he was still relishing his victory and determined to get as much as possible out of it. They sat in a quiet corner and discussed the plan for the day. Spooner would go along to Harry’s Bar at twelve o’clock sharp to see who was in. He had no intention of getting involved with any crowd other than the one Maimoon was likely to be entertaining, but he never knew who would be there willing to talk about the information they had or expected to get. It could pay to mingle a bit. Jed would head for The City, probably hanging around by Saint Pauls, killing time until Spooner sent him the text message. It was still possible of course that Maimoon would give them a negative report, a fact which had not escaped Spooner’s attention when he had been pouring over the details of the job in the early hours. A ‘no’ was just as valuable a piece of information, as any other, it was an investment saved, powder kept dry for another day.
Such things made Jed impatient and Spooner had to calm him down when it turned out that there was no action. They were much different in their approaches to this way of making a living. Jed and Spooner were a ‘Firm’ in the sense that they shared expenses and put on equal amounts to keep the information flowing. Occasionally Jed would put on a lot extra on his own behalf, as if he were going for broke, the one big killing that would improve his life somehow. Spooner was vaguely aware of this occasional excess and had tried to talk Jed in to being more disciplined. His argument, a logical one in mathematical terms, seemed to placate Jed for a while. Even he could see that although the information was generally sound, there was no way of predicting actually when the next winner would be, and therefore to increase stakes without good reason could turn out to be disastrous.
Today was one of those days when Jed’s sheer exuberance was leading him towards a bet over and above what was demanded in the circumstances. Spooner sensed as much and tried to keep him focused on doing the job and nothing else. The danger time for Jed was while he was alone in The City waiting for the green light message. He would no doubt already be counting the money in his head, in fact would have spent most of it in his imagination long before the event at York. They smoked one last cigarette in the hotel lounge and then set off separately, Jed going first to the Marble Arch Underground, followed a few minutes later by Spooner who crossed Oxford Street. The pavements were already becoming impassable, shoppers vying with others waiting for buses and taxis. This convinced him to turn around and walk down Park Lane, down past Grosvenor House and then left along Mount Street. The sun was high now and Spooner was uncomfortably aware of a trickle of sweat down his back. Reaching South Audley Street, he quickly crossed and walked the last few yards to Harry’s Bar, feeling grateful to have entered somewhere with air conditioning.
Maimoon was at the bar, chatting to two men that Spooner hadn’t seen before. He turned to see who had entered and raising his left to the two strangers he walked over to Spooner and embraced him warmly:
“ Spooner , my friend, how are you? You look well. But sweating? It’s a bit warm for the Christians, eh?” He patted Spooner hard on the back. This was his usual way of signalling that he was joking; and, as if to underline the fact, a broad grin broke out below his dramatic black moustache, revealing gold teeth all over the place. Maimoon was a generous man; and generous too in gesture and demeanour. Only slightly smaller than Spooner, about five feet seven or eight, and beginning to develop a stomach to match his diet and lifestyle, he loved to talk and to eat and to be in the company of like minded people. He took Spooner by the arm and led him to the bar. Spooner spoke for the first time:
“You look pretty good as well, Hamad. Can I get you a drink?”
“You buy me nothing, Spooner. You are my guest, my friend.” Maimoon used the phrase ‘my friend’ a lot. It was a relic of his time in France where he went after leaving the Lebanon. It was Maimoon’s way of using the French ‘mon ami’, as a filler in the conversation and stood in for hesitations in speech. Spooner always found this amusing and saw it as part of Miamoon’s charm. The three people already with drinks were sipping at some sort of orange looking concoction which Spooner accepted from the bar man when invited. It was very sweet and whatever the alcoholic content of it was, it certainly wasn’t a background taste. Maimoon introduced his two companions to Spooner as his cousins, a touch surprising, he observed, since they looked nothing like their host, and in fact were both well over six feet tall. Still that was Hamad’s business, Spooner didn’t care who they were, in effect. Their accents were different from Maimoon’s – there was some French in there somewhere, Spooner was guessing of course, but he knew a lot of the different mix of Arabic peoples who co-existed in the Marble Arch – Edgware Road area- his first impression was that they might be Algerian, certainly from North Africa somewhere.
Maimoon was holding forth as usual, enjoying the spotlight as it were, talking about his shops, his growing import business, occasionally winking mischievously at Spooner, who knew full well that he was playing with his audience. Three more of Maimoon’s circle came in, each accompanied by a girl, and stood around their table. Maimoon interrupted his performance to order them some drinks from the waiter, and said as an aside to Spooner:
“Observe, my friend, the greed in their eyes. See how quickly they will disappear if I tell them to back my beautiful filly. She will win today, she has been training with the older horses and keeping up with them, my trainer says she will be much better next year, but today, today she will start with a win. You will put money on?” – Spooner nodded, holding up all five fingers of his right hand to indicate he would having a monkey on. Maimoon continued-
“Abdulaziz has already bet two and a half thousand for me offshore. You can have five hundred of it, if you like. That would save you having to do your usual trip round town, and you could stay longer, enjoy the spectacle of these people who don’t like me, and I don’t like, making like we’re all family. What do you say, my friend?”
Spooner nodded in agreement, then excused himself, went to the bathroom and sent a ‘GO GO GO!’ text message to Jed, then another one asking him to get in touch later that evening. He returned to the company, where once again Maimoon was regaling an even bigger crowd than before with some story of his eventful youth.