This was, thought Merritt, absolutely bloody typical of Larkin.
The place was a dizzying carousel of gigantic, deafening televisions blaring out conflicting commentaries on horse racing and football, the bleeping and blinking of garish slot machines and small groups of belligerent-looking young men bellowing profanities at one another over pints of urine-orange cider.
The indignity of the situation had been amplified by the barmaid’s dogged refusal to acknowledge his existence for five solid minutes as he stood like lemon awaiting service. It had immediately been compounded further by the look of unvarnished contempt he had been met with upon enquiring about the selection of red wines available.
Forced to settle for a dozen dusty Hardy’s Stamp Shiraz miniatures pulled resentfully from underneath the bar following this terse conversation, he handed over a twenty pound note and edged carefully between groups of vaguely simian, Victorian criminal mugshot men howling incoherently at the football.
Larkin, as ever, had found the darkest, most squalid corner of the room to luxuriate in. He beamed at Merritt with the insouciant gaiety of a foppish romantic poet after a few puffs on an opium pipe as he untidily put down two handfuls of miniatures and two grubby wine glasses on the table.
“I must, once again, question your choice of hostelry, Larkin,” sighed Merritt, catching a couple of stray bottles and standing them upright. “This isn’t another one of those…you know…”
“Gay bars? Gosh no. Besides, if I’ve told you once I’ve told you a million times, it looked like a perfectly normal and respectable pub from the outside.”
“Until those two bikers started necking right in front of us.”
“Yes, just as your Cumberland ring and mash arrived. And then that Chinaman tried to persuade you to buy me a red rose, which you refused me. I was quite heartbroken by that, to tell you the truth. I thought I meant something to you, Merritt, but it turns out I’m just an old fool.”
Merritt let out a low moan and began hastily decanting the miniatures into the glasses. He had regretted dredging up the subject of the accidental gay pub lunch the moment it had tripped off his lips.
“To be perfectly frank, Larkin, this place isn’t much of an upgrade,” he grumbled, lowering his voice. “I feel the possibility of being stabbed to death with a broken bottle or punched and stamped into a coma looms large in here. And would you just look at the state of the carpet. At least the gays keep their carpet in decent repair.”
“Oh do stop your mithering Merritt. It’s like drinking with an old woman. This is a perfectly normal public house. A perfectly normal public house that happens to be five minutes away from Primark, which, if my short term memory serves me correctly, you expressed the wish to be rescued from less than twenty minutes ago.”
“There’s an air of menace in here, Larkin. That’s all I’m saying. It’s palpable.”
He glanced to his left, where two stocky men with overhanging brows and scuffed leather jackets were conducting a loud argument in what might have passed for Albanian.
“Oh for crying out loud, when did you become such a snowflake, Merritt? The atmosphere is lively, at worst. Lively verging upon vibrant. Besides, that barmaid is an absolute delight.”
“Nonsense. She deliberately ignored me,” snorted Merritt. “She deliberately ignored me and then looked at me like I was something she’d just scraped off her heel. All that and she has a tattoo on her neck.”
“You’re missing the point entirely, old chap. If she’s willing to let some fellow loose on her neck with a needle then she’s willing to do more or less anything. You’ve got to read between the lines with people sometimes.”
The conversation was interrupted momentarily by a commotion between the two foreigners. A table was overturned amid angry cries of t’lshoft toka! and t’hangert dreqi! Both stormed off, presumably to attempt to snap each other’s necks in the alleyway which lay beyond the fire door.
“Did I tell you Hayley dumped me?” said Larkin, matter-of-factly.
“The flat chested one. Short hair. Short temper. Short legs. Worked for the council fannying about organising twinning committee trips and fact finding missions and whatnot all day.”
“I imagine that’s a relief. What was it you referred to her as? Oh yes, a for-nower. And what was the other term you employed? Somewhere to drop anchor for a few weeks before sailing away to a more pleasant horizon.”
“I said that? Quite poetic don’t you think?”
“That’s one word for it.”
“I’ll let that go by, Merritt, but only because you were wrong on the first count. It’s not a relief at all.”
The men paused to take a gulp of wine. Larkin winced. Merritt fought a brief battle with his gag reflex before composing himself and continuing his interrogation.
“But I thought you said she was little more than a temporary thing? Just one step up from rogering a rubber doll, I recall you saying.”
“Merritt, a man can come to see a lady in a completely different light once he gets to know her properly.”
Merritt had another attempt at his wine. It was as every bit as awful as the first sip.
“She has money, doesn’t she?”
Larkin sat bolt upright, a look of wounded shock playing across his face.
“You’re so quick to assume that my every action has some kind of sinister, mercenary ulterior motive, aren’t you?”
“She does have money, though, doesn’t she?”
“Look, she’s a reasonably pleasant person at times. Laughs occasionally. She can cook at least three different types of meal that I know of. Isn’t too fat. Makes an odd sort of squeaking noise when we’re at and I’m seventy five per cent certain it’s meant in an appreciative way. Went to a decent school. Clean driving licence. What can I say, she grew on me. Love sometimes takes time to bloom.”
“Larkin. She has money. Stop wasting my time and just admit it.”
“Okay, okay, yes. Well, she does have money now. But that wasn’t until I intervened. It’s complicated. Nuanced, all that kind of thing.”
“Twenty minutes complicated and nuanced? Because I can only stretch popping over to Timpsons to get my watch battery replaced for so long with the wife without it losing all credibility.”
“If you let me speak without the usual sarcastic running commentary spewing from your maw I’ll pour it all out in ten.”
“Jolly good, pour away,” said Merritt, miming a zipping motion across his lips.
“Well the whole thing started when I ran out of things to say to her one evening. So I asked her if she had any family, not because I cared one way or another, merely to break the silence.”
“Well, it turns out her parents and siblings are all missing, presumed dead.”
“Holiday in Lesotho, apparently. Sounds like the sort of utterly stupid idea guaranteed to get you kidnapped, raped, chopped up and sold on a bushmeat market. But I’m a sensitive chap so I kept those observations to myself and instead made a convincing series of sympathetic sounds as she relayed this information to me.”
“To break the silence.”
“You’re learning quickly. Anyway, that’s when things start to genuinely pique my interest. She starts talking about her only two living relatives – two elderly spinster aunts. They live together in a run down old manor house out in the middle of nowhere on Blackheath Common, she says.”
“What an utterly frightful thought. I can almost smell the cats and horse manure from here.”
“That was my initial impression too. But then I poured her another very large G and T and the pertinent details came flowing out of her.”
Larkin leant forwards and raised an eyebrow.
“The aunts, Enid and Glenys, it turns out, have for years been resisting pressure from numerous developers to sell up, let them knock the old place down and build a dozen executive homes on top of it all. Tens of millions of pounds on the table, but they just chase them away and shred the letters. It’s absurd.”
Merritt sat back and folded his arms abruptly.
“You’ve murdered them haven’t you?”
He looked his friend up and down somberly. He was only half joking.
“You’ve murdered them and made it look like an accident. It’s all over your face.”
Larkin sputtered and hissed and wrung his hands until he regained his composure.
“What on earth do you take me for, Merritt? Murder?”
“It sounds like that’s exactly what you’re driving at. Like I say, perhaps not in an obvious hatchet-through-the-skull sort of way but it is quite conceivable you’ve engineered some kind of carbon monoxide leak or an electric blanket bursting into flames.”
More sputtering, more hissing, more handwringing and incoherent histrionics emanated from Larkin.
“If you’d stop for just one minute with these slanderous interjections you’ll find that it’s really not quite as simple as you’re making it out to be,” he hissed, finally regaining the power of speech.
Merritt sat back in his chair, raised an eyebrow and reluctantly motioned him to continue.
“Hayley, it turns out, is the heir to this little gold mine, due to the aforementioned Lesotho cannibal incident. Following that logic, she would also be expected to assume power of attorney of old Enid and Glenys’ estate if they are judged to lack the cognitive ability to do it sensibly themselves. All of a sudden, it all flashes in front of me, Merritt. I’d be a kept man. The big wedding, the swish townhouse in Kensington, Merc in the underground car park. Her spending her days doing what wealthy women do, going for lunch, getting her hair done, choosing curtains, too busy to notice that I’m spending my days in the Savoy hoovering high grade marching powder off the arse cracks of the most expensive escorts known to mankind and my evenings gambling the gross domestic product of Serbia at the Colony Club. And if she became truly intolerable I’d just bin her and pocket half of it all in the divorce settlement.”
He inhaled the remainder of his wine and began to unscrew another miniature.
“I simply attempted to move that process along a little quicker than nature intended. And before you jump in with any more accusations they are both very much still alive and physically well.”
“Alive and physically well where, exactly?” Merritt was beginning to look seriously concerned. He knew Larkin too well not to be profoundly unsettled by the direction in which the conversation was moving.
“We’ll get to that in due course. My next move was to rinse Hayley’s mind for every cough, spit and fart about the old birds under the guise of taking an interest in her life. Then, I cogitated for a couple of days, picked up a few bits and pieces and headed down to Blackheath Common.”
“Bits and pieces?”
“Well, a military uniform, a replica assault rifle, a selection of specialist books and a tin of spray paint.”
“Jesus wept, Larkin. Seriously, what is wrong with you?”
“No, no. bear with me, Merritt. It’ll all make perfect sense in a minute. Next, I dumped the car somewhere quiet and hiked for about an hour across country to the manor. It was getting towards about half past six, when, according to intel gathered from Hayley, they’re usually settling down to their toast and cocoa before bedtime.”
“You’re an utterly terrifying person sometimes, Larkin, you truly are.”
“Nonsense, Merritt. By now I’ve put on the uniform, slung the rifle over my shoulder and marched up to the front door. Bang, bang, bang. A knock with true military purpose, to get it all off to an authentic start.
“There’s a bit of shuffling and muffled debate behind the door before it opens half an inch and then old Enid’s right eye peers out. Yes? Can I help you?, all timid like. So I introduced myself. Good day madam, I am Major Bernand Puscat of the UK Civil Defence Corps, says I. Are you the owner of this building?”
Merritt looked as if he might burst into tears, but took another slug of ghastly red wine and continued to listen intently.
“So they invite me in and I begin pacing around the kitchen looking all serious and official. I regret to inform you, madams, that the Russians launched an invasion of Great Britain just a few hours ago. Eastbourne, Brighton, Worthing, all overrun by the reds, I tell them. Bognor Regis is putting up a brave fight but it won’t buy us very much time. Naturally, this provokes some degree of initial panic. The kitchen, by the way, was indeed crawling with cats, as you imagined. Didn’t see any horse manure but ceiling was stained with what looked like decades worth of Benson & Hedges fumes. You’d have breathed better air down a coal mi….”
Merritt glanced at his watch. “Okay, okay, Timpsons, remember? Credibility issues.”
“Yes, yes. So then I told them that the expected Russian advance would push towards London through the South Downs, capturing the key strategic towns of Haslemere and Godalming, meaning that their home was being temporarily requisitioned as a forward command post from which to launch tactical nuclear weapons at the advancing red horde.”
“And they believed all this?”
“Merritt, they’re in their eighties, don’t have a television and glean only snippets of what is going on in the outside world from the parish magazine and the occasional telephone call from Hayley, who doesn’t like to upset them with too much chit chat about geopolitical strife. It’s bad for their digestion, apparently. If an armed Englishman turns up out of nowhere in a uniform and tells them something in a confident enough manner they are going to go for it hook, line and sinker.”
“So at this point these poor old ladies genuinely think they’re going to be shot by Russians?”
“Yes. But the wartime generation are made of sterner stuff than us, Merritt. Their first question was what do you need us to do?”
“Quite. So then it’s time to begin phase two. My kit bag is loaded with books by that David Icke chap. I spent some considerable time underlining key passages about vibrational energy, Archontic influence and the Babylonian brotherhood.”
“To scatter around their bedrooms. Make it look like they’ve gone down a queer rabbit hole. Like it wasn’t just a sudden thing.”
“What wasn’t just a sudden thing?”
“All in good time, Merritt. So I need something to keep them busy while I slip away and plant the books. There is something you can do to help, madams, I tell them. The Russians are being aided by the Vatican in their efforts to take over the world. It turns out there are sleeper cells all over the country ready to rise up the moment they receive a coded message from the Kremlin. We’re busy rounding up all the prominent Roman Catholics in the area to be summarily executed without trial, so if you could write down the names of any local Papists that would certainly aid the war effort.”
“And they were willing to do this?”
“Yes. In fact, they threw themselves into the task with a vim and vigour not even I could have anticipated. The list was a mile long by the time I came back down the stairs. The local MP’s name was right at the top, and underlined quite aggressively too. Glenys had even been out to the stable to fetch a pitchfork. She expressed a keen interest in carrying out some of the executions herself.”
“Do you realise how insane all this sounds now you’re saying it out loud, Larkin?”
“Nonsense. It was all going to plan at that point. Phase three all went swimmingly too.”
“There was a third phase?”
“Yes. I told them they needed to vacate the building immediately before my men arrived and we started lobbing battlefield nukes at Ivan from the roof. Take your pitchforks, ladies, I said, and make for Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Take up a defensive position in one of the old buildings there. Attack anyone who approaches you. Do not, under any circumstances, allow yourself to be taken prisoner. The Russians do terrible things to prisoners of war.”
“You induced two octogenarians to hike across the countryside to a derelict building and spend the night there in anticipation of being taken prisoner by foreign soldiers?”
“Wartime generation, Merritt. It’s only about six or seven miles away. They probably used to walk that sort of distance for their ration of powdered egg back in the forties.”
“And that’s how you left things?”
“Well, once I was absolutely certain they were gone, I painted a few quick swastikas on the side of the house, changed out of the uniform, hiked back to the car and tootled back to London. It was as if I was never there.”
Merritt sighed and drained the last of his glass.
“What time did the phone ring the next morning?”
“At about ten o’clock. Hayley in mild hysterics. Enid and Glenys have gone stark raving mad, she said. Found cowering in the corner of a derelict building at Chilworth Gunpowder Mills. Attacked a dog walker with pitchforks, she said. Might lose his leg, apparently. Armed response unit called in. Started jabbering about Russians and Catholics and battlefield nukes. Four hour standoff before they surrendered, it seems. House full of whacko conspiracy books and Nazi symbolism. Must have suffered some kind of collective psychosis. Currently detained indefinitely in what used to be the county asylum. I made a series of convincing sympathetic noises as she relayed all this to me.”
Larkin finished his drink and sat back. “A hugely successful operation all round, really. Quite humanely done. And to think you accused me of something as blunt and crude as murder just a few minutes ago.”
Merritt turned this over in his mind for a few moments. The Albanians had returned to their table in a more convivial mood and were now engaged in a noisy physical contest that fell somewhere between arm wrestling and torture.
“Larkin, you are sitting in a dingy city centre pub drinking out of date miniature wines surrounded by volatile foreigners. And by your own admission, Hayley, upon whom your future idle rich lifestyle depended upon, is long gone. There must have been a rather large fly in the ointment.”
Larkin screwed up his face and sighed.
“Timing,” he moaned. “I am a victim of timing. Just as all this came to fruition, the Russians did actually invade Ukraine.”
“What of it? Blackheath Common isn’t anywhere near Ukraine.”
“Quite correct, old chap, quite correct. But despite my best efforts to persuade her otherwise, she has convinced herself the incident at her aunts’ house is connected to the current military situation in eastern Europe. Some kind of psy-op, she thinks. Like that business up at Salisbury with the nerve gas. She believes they were testing some kind of hallucinogenic chemical weapon out and the Icke books and swastikas were planted there by Russian spies as a cover for it all. That is what she thinks led to the whole psychotic episode business and subsequent sectioning of both her only living relatives.”
“But surely that doesn’t affect the whole power of attorney business? The money is safe. All you have to do is nod and agree, say yes, dear and continue to have joyless relations with her now and again until you’re home and dry and legally entitled to half of it, surely?”
“Not really. She’s in the process of donating all of the money to the Ukrainian war effort. In fact, she is out in Ukraine right now firing rockets at Russian tanks.”
“Ah. I see. So near, yet so far away.”
“The last text I got from her was to say she’d fallen in love with a Lithuanian mercenary called Modestas. Said she was very sorry and all that but his life goals are more aligned with hers than mine will ever be. Said they’d just immobilised a T-14 together with some C4 and half a dozen grenades. I wouldn’t even know which way up to hold a grenade, let alone blow up a tank with one. ”
“An unlucky break,” said Merritt glancing anxiously at his watch and gathering up his jacket. “But that’s always been the problem with women, old chap. Nothing’s ever really good enough for them.”
© DH 2022