Authors: Robert Rankin
Tags: #sf_humor, #Fiction, #General, #Adventure, #Science Fiction
The fourth part of the "Brentford Trilogy". Amazing, but true, Brentford Town Council has agreed to host the next Olympic Games. However, something sinister is afoot in Brentford, and it is up to the regulars of The Flying Swan to save the world as we know it.
Brentford was enjoying another tropical summer.
Although torrents of rain fell unceasingly upon Hounslow, Ealing and Chiswick, and the gardeners of Kew had taken to the wearing of sou’westers and fisherman’s waders, the good people of Brentford lazed in their deckchairs and sipped cooling drinks or strolled the historic thoroughfares in shorts and sunhats. Brentford was like that.
To commuters passing daily across the flyover, bound for the great metropolis somewhat east of Ealing, all seemed mundane enough. Lines of slate rooftops sheltering late Victorian houses, a gasometer, a watertower, a row of flatblocks. Nothing unusual here, one might have thought, nothing to inspire wonder, just another West London suburb. A few more acres of urban sprawl. But no. There was something more to Brentford than that. And though it was difficult to put a finger on just what that might be, it was definitely there all right. A very very special something.
Upon a May morning, shortly before the dawn, a long black automobile of advanced design and foreign extraction turned off the Great West Road, crested the railway bridge beside the Mowlems building and cruised soundlessly down towards the streets of Brentford.
Upon reaching the London Road, where the Arts Centre thrust its jagged shadow up towards the night sky, the car halted and a curiously stunted figure, clad in chauffeur’s livery, emerged from it map in hand.
Having examined this carefully, by the light of a pen-torch, he tapped with caution upon a blackly tinted rear window. The panel of glass slid away with a hiss and the chauffeur momentarily stiffened as an exhalation of stale and stagnant air filled his nostrils. Coughing politely into a scented handkerchief, he proffered the map to the unseen occupant of the rear compartment and said, “The site lies just beyond the building, sir, upon the island. It is the last of the five. You now possess them all.”
A sigh issued from the rear compartment, a plaintive, yet unearthly sound, followed by an agitated wheezing, as of lungs far gone in chronic decay.
“Then all is as it should be,” hissed a voice, scarcely more than a choked whisper. “And today the plan will be put into operation.”
The chauffeur dabbed at the cold sweat which had risen to his brow and accepted the return of his map with a trembling hand. Even through his white kid driving gloves he could feel that the paper was now cold and damp. He bowed stiffly, returned to his seat and put the curious vehicle once more in motion.
As the thin line of dawn broadened along the rooftops of Brentford, the car swung away towards Kew Bridge and was presently lost to view within the shadow of the great gasometer.
The dawn choristers completed their rowdy ovation to the new day as the
’s driver tossed his first Friday bundle in the general direction of a cornershop doorstep. On high Olympus, the Fates, nodding in agreement across their breakfast ambrosia, declared the day officially begun.
Norman hoisted the bundle of weekly locals on to the worm-eaten countertop, where it struck with an appropriately dull thud and raised a glorious cloud of dust. The shopkeeper sighed with pleasure. Since the departure of his wife with a former editor of the borough’s organ he had allowed the business to run magnificently to seed. His dust was the envy of every married man in the neighbourhood and Norman, revelling in each new pleasure afforded to him by his unexpected return to bachelorhood, was living, as he considered it, “life to the full”. Upstairs last week’s underpants lorded it upon the bedside rug; today’s sartorial excesses stretched to a pair of odd and undarned socks and the garish Hawaiian shirt his wife had particularly hated. Norman had also recently cultivated a pair of ludicrous mutton-chop whiskers which he considered to be rather dashing.
“It’s not a bad old life if you don’t weaken,” he constantly informed his customers, adding guardedly that this was of course dependent upon not letting the bastards (whoever they were) grind you down.
Whistling tunelessly, between teeth of his own design and construction, Norman slid the blade of his reproduction Sword of Boda paperknife through the twine bindings and spread away the pink covering to expose the FRONT PAGE NEWS. There was always more than the merest hint of ceremony about this weekly routine. Something vaguely akin to the mystical, although performed subconsciously and without the solemnity generally accorded to ritual. But such was often the way of it in Brentford. Certain customs appeared to have acquired almost magical significance. Professor Slocombe’s dawn perambulation of the borough boundaries, for example, or Neville the part-time barman’s daily check of the Swan’s beer engines. Such things were part of the Vital stuff of Brentford and a contributing factor towards the town’s separateness from its neighbours. Brentford lacked the cosmopolitanism of Hounslow, the upward mobility of Ealing, the young professionalism of Chiswick and the aloof urbanity of Kew. It should not be surprising therefore to note that the initials of these surrounding territories spell out the word HECK, the nineteenth-century euphemism for hell.
Norman flung the length of knotted twine into an overflowing rubbish box beneath the counter, leant upon the threadbare elbows of his ragged shopcoat and took stock of the week’s doings. The headline was not slow to engage his attention: INVISIBLE MYSTIC IN CHURCH HALL RUMPUS ran the generously inked banner headline filling a third of the front page. “Guru Vanishes With The Takings As Fists Fly!”
Norman chuckled to himself as he read the account of how local warlock and self-styled miracle worker Hugo Rune, having failed to make good his promise to dematerialize before a capacity crowd, had performed an entirely different variety of vanishing act when the dissatisfied punters turned ugly and demanded the return of their money. Fearing possible damage to the Jacobean timbers of the newly restored church hall, Father Moity had telephoned for the police. During the ensuing punch-up there had been twelve arrests and the local constabulary were currently seeking the whereabouts of the perfect master.
Norman shook his head and turned the page.
BIRMINGHAM’S OLYMPIC HOPES GO UP IN SMOKE: “Stadium Fire Ends Brum’s Olympic Dreams”. Of course Norman had heard all this on the wireless set. The grim catalogue of mismanagement, bungling, inefficiency and chaos had been daily news for months. As David Coleman had said, “The final kiss goodbye has long been on the cards.”
“Shame,” said Norman to no-one but himself, “I thought I’d have a crack at the javelin.”
On a lower portion of the same page was an item that any other editor might well have considered to be front-page news: GOLD BULLION ROBBERY: “Thieves Net Largest Ever Haul In Crime Of The Century”. Norman whistled once more through his home-made railings as he read the figure. Even allowing for the exaggeration of the
’s cub reporter, Scoop Molloy, there seemed little doubt that this was, as the Sweeney’s now legendary “Guv” would have put it, “One big blag, George.”
Exactly how the robbery had been carried out was still something of a mystery and Norman marvelled at the ingenuity of the light-fingered gentry who had slipped unseen through the high security cordon to abscond with the many tons of golden booty. Norman counted up the rows of noughts and tried to reconcile them into hundreds, thousands and millions. It didn’t bear thinking about.
A quick flip through the remaining pages disclosed pretty much what he had come to expect. The same tired old stuff, although strangely comforting in its tired old sameness. Local fêtes and flowershows. A listing of next week’s car boot sales. (Norman never ceased to be amazed by the public’s apparent craving for car boots.) A three-page tide table. Next week’s demonstration of the art of Levitation called off due to unforeseen circumstances. The council still flogging off portions of wasteland in a vain attempt to make the books balance. Old Sandell, the
’s oracle, predicting scandal for the house of Windsor and a one-eyed Puerto Rican to win the Derby. The same old, tired old stuff.
Shaking his head once more — just for the hell of it — Norman dug a biro from his top pocket and began to number up the papers.
“An invisible guru, a gold bullion robbery and aloha to the Brum Olympics,” muttered Norman. “Worth a bit of chit-chat in the Swan come lunchtime, but hardly likely to change the face of civilization hereabouts.”
In the light of future events, however, Norman might have done well in discarding this particular remark in favour of something completely different … possibly one of the less cheerful doom prophecies from the Book of Revelation, or a simple “The end is drawing nigh”.
But precognition had never been one of Norman’s stronger points. For indeed had he possessed this rare gift to even the slightest degree, he would not now have been unnecessarily numbering up papers which he would shortly be delivering himself. For upon this particular morning, as on several past, Zorro the paperboy had chosen to remain in his cosy bed rather than face the rigours of bag, bike and bull terrier.
Thus it was that with a Beefheartian air upon his lips and the dust settling thickly upon his “mutton-chops”, Norman continued with his task, blissfully unaware that he had just glimpsed the beginning of the end. Or if not that, then something that looked very much like it.
Not one hundred yards due north of Norman’s shop, as fair flies the griffin, there stands a public house which is the very hub of the Brentonian universe. Solidly constructed of old London stocks and fondly embellished with all the Victorian twiddly bits, the Flying Swan gallantly withstood the slings and arrows of outrageous brewery management. Its patrons have never known the horrors of fizzy beer or pub grub that comes “à-la-basket”.
The Swan had grown old gracefully. The etched glass windows, tinted with nicotine and the exhalations of a million beery breaths, sustained that quality of light exclusive to elderly pubs. The burnished brass of the beer engines shone like old gold and the bar top glowed with a deep patina. The heady perfumes of Brasso and beeswax blended with those of hops and barley, grape and grain to produce an enchanting fragrance all its own. Only a man born without a soul would not pause a moment upon entering the Swan for the first time, breathe in the air, savour the atmosphere and say, “This
But of course, for all its ambience, redolence and Ridley Scottery, a pub is only as good as the beer it serves. And here it must be said that those on offer were of such a toothsome relish, so satisfying in body and flavour as might reasonably elicit bouts of incredulous head-shaking and murmurs of disbelief from the reader.
Nevertheless the eight hand-drawn ales available were of a quality capable of raising eulogies from seasoned drinkers, their bar-side converse long hag-ridden by clichés of how much better beer tasted in the good old days.
So who then was the paragon, the thinking man’s barkeep, this publican amongst publicans, this guru of good alery? The tap-room tenant of this drinking man’s Valhalla?
A carpet-slippered foot flaps upon a stair-tread, the hem of a worn silk dressing-gown brushes the gleaming mahogany top of a Britannia pub table. A gaunt shadow falls across the row of twinkling pump handles, as a shaft of sunlight, diamond flecked with floating motes, glistens upon a brilliantined barnet. A slim, almost girlish hand snakes out towards the whisky optic.
Surely we know those monogrammed carpet slippers, recognize the faded dressing-gown, have seen that brilliantined head bowed as in reverence as its owner draws off a shot with that slim yet certain hand?
Yes, there can be no mistake, no doubt can remain. Neville the part-time barman, it is he.
Neville yawned, belched, scratched at his stomach and drew off a large measure of breakfast. Flexing his rounded shoulders and puffing out his pigeon chest he downed the “gold watch” with a practised wrist-flick and prepared himself to face the day.
Still a-yawning, a-belching and a-scratching, yet now inwardly fortified, Neville sallied forth in search of his weekly newspaper. Knowing Norman’s paperboy of old, he did not trouble with the doormat. Last week, the errant rag had gone to earth in one of the hanging geranium baskets, the week before that in the waste-bin. Neville felt no animosity towards young Zorro, rather a deep sympathy, one which had its foundations in the part-time barman’s current passion: psychoanalysis.
Every successful barman is something of a natural psychologist, and of late Neville had felt his particular talents leading him into the tortuous labyrinths of the human psyche. And jolly good stuff it all was too.
Young Zorro was a case in point. The rolled newspaper and the open letterbox were quite obviously sexual symbols. Zorro probably had a father fixation or a subconscious desire to return to the womb. Neville also considered that the root cause might lie in Zorro’s mother. Perhaps she had been a victim of Brentford’s notorious fifties-flasher, whose peccadillo was to ring upon a lady’s doorbell and poke his willy through the letterbox. Conversely, his mother might have been frightened by a postman during the moment of his conception. Anything was possible. In the cosy bedroom of Nine Noahs Ark Lane, Zorro slept on.
He was blissfully unaware of his supposed pathological disorder, simply considering that it was far easier to chuck Neville’s paper towards the door whilst cycling by, than struggle to ram it through the inadequately sized, although beautifully polished, letterbox.
Neville slipped the bolts upon the saloon bar door and swung it open to the day. As he stood framed magnificently by the famous portal, drawing great draughts of early morning air through his quivering nostrils and exercising what he described as extra-nasal perception to gauge the quality of the hour, he pondered upon where this week’s
might be cooling its metaphorically winged heels.
Like the legendary sleuth of old he knew that when one has eliminated the impossible, then whatever remains, no matter how improbable, must surely be the solution. Such is all well and good of course, but putting theory into practice is quite another thing. The prospect of rooting in dustbins and shinning up drainpipes to examine dubious gutters held little charm. Neville sighed deeply and took a silent vow that he would deal the errant paperboy the thickest of thick ears the next time their paths crossed, fixation or no fixation.
And there perhaps we might have left Neville, scowling and fuming and preparing to make a lone assault upon the east face of the Flying Swan, had not a small — yet in its own way significant — event now occurred. As he took a deep preparatory breath, the part-time barman suddenly became the unwilling recipient of a great gust of unwholesome stench borne to him upon the formerly rose-tinted Brentford breeze.
“By the Gods!” squawked Neville somewhat nasally as the evil wang engulfed him. He clutched despairingly at his nose and gagged into his hand. His tabloid now forgotten, he fanned at the fetid air and stumbled back into the Swan, slamming the door behind him.
With a brief hiss the tinted rear window of a long black automobile parked outside the Swan sealed itself upon the outer world. The vehicle eased away from the kerb and gathered speed along the Ealing Road. Norman, issuing from his corner shop, bulging paperbag upon his shoulder, watched it pass. There wasn’t much the wee lad didn’t know about cars, his own revolutionary alternative to the internal combustion engine, the Hartnel Harrier, lacking but a few essential parts in the lock-up, but this one fair had him foxed. Not only was it utterly silent, but it also lacked all evidence of exhaust pipes. Norman scratched at his head, raising small clouds of dust. Now how was that done, he wondered? Antimatter drive? Plasma photon ionizers utilizing a cross-polarization of beta particles to bombard an inter-rositor through the medium of a sub-atomic converter? It seemed a most logical probability. Making a hasty note upon the back of a Woodbine packet, Norman hefted his bag and set out upon his paper-round.