I used to work in a department store where there was a manager who ruled with something of a manicured iron fist. She actually used to get kicks out of reprimanding staff and subverting their relationships, which she would achieve in very subtle ways. She was a maestro of negativity, conducting us like an orchestra and luring us into making mistakes, just so that she could make a show of whichever poor wretch was on her hitlist that day.
She wasn’t without charm, though, which is why I thought that she would make a great villain. The longer I worked there, the more rumours I heard and the more I saw with my own eyes, the more intriguing she became. She used the workplace hierarchy and corporate targets for her own ends, none of which were actually concerned with profit margins.
This, and certain other experiences led me to study psychology in a bid to demystify the motives in any kind of cruelty, whereupon I learnt about psychopathy and its causes/effects. When writing A Smaller Hell, I took an example of a philanthropist in Joseph Williamson, who built the famous tunnels in Liverpool, and summoned him in the founder of the department store: Commander Clarence Tanner. The idea was to have Dianne Doyle be a personification of slick and shiny corporate psychopathy in contrast to Tanner’s long-standing philosophy of providing work for the families of the town, giving to charity and generally keeping a fire burning for the community to rally round.
I don’t like the fact that business has become all-consuming and all-important. It’s made me uncomfortable for a long time and the more I learn about the skulduggery that underpins the corporate world, the more I become convinced that my fears are well-founded. I find it vulgar – even creepy – when people say “it’s good for the economy” about some morally-dubious initiative that our politicians are undertaking, as if the economy is some kind of god or idol that we should all kneel and worship, even at the expense of our own humanity.
Dianne Doyle is the face that I’ve given to those fears. She is everything that’s dangerous about money and sex. She’s also the mischievous authoritarian and cruel hedonist, whose greatest act of manipulation and deception is charted in A Smaller Hell and unfolds to reveal that “the Devil can sometimes do a very gentlemanly thing”, as Robert Louis Stevenson said.
Last night, after the captain and crew went to bed, I stuck around on the bow of the Sarinda to catch the Perseid meteor shower. I wedged my rucksack under my head and kept my eyes fixed on the night sky until bright green lights began streaking across it, leaving vapour trails in their wake.
I didn’t have a wish ready: I had to root around for one, trying to choose something not too selfish and not too far-fetched. The corner of North Wales looked like it was being attacked from space at one point, making me wonder what would happen if one were to strike the estuary, which is still reported to be full of unexploded bombs from World War Two.
It reminded me of being a child again, when I used to play with my friends down on the shore, discovering and investigating wrecked boats and winding gutters. We made The Hidey Hole out of a huge concrete pipe that had been discarded in the woods and launched regular water pistol assaults on another gang from there. There were rope-swings, rope-bridges, fox-holes, tunnels, BMX ramps and even a zipline.
Unauthorised use of our facilities was the most common cause for confrontations, which often escalated to the point of parents getting involved, displeased at their beloved little angels coming home covered in mud and soaking wet, having lost the territory battle. No-one ever got really hurt. An older brother threw a brick at me once, hitting me in the leg, but it didn’t do much damage. I just pretended it did, so that his mum would ground him, taking him out of the equation for a week and leaving his brother fair game for another water-bombing.
More often than not, we all ended up playing together and becoming friends after the initial tribal stand-offs, building yet more jumps, slides and ramps, after which we would go to one another’s houses for the ubiquitous dinner of fish fingers, chips and peas. We would be careful to mind our manners and remove our shoes if it was “that kind of house” for the benefit of our pals more than anything, so that they would be able to continue to come out to play.
Things changed when one of our gang discovered fire. He proceeded to blow up The Hidey Hole (literally cracked it in two) with a load of deodorant cans, changed up his Super Soaker water pistol for a can of WD40 and a lighter and set fire to another gang’s BMX tyres. The police got involved when neighbours from half a mile away heard The Hidey Hole go up. It was with immediate effect that all of us were banned by our parents from playing down on the marsh anymore. Sometimes, I would ride my bike down there to see if anyone was around, but no-one dared since our mate was being threatened with juvenile detention. Everyone was asking each other who had grassed when we could get each other on the phone, but no-one knew, or so they claimed.
Lying on the deck of that historic warship and watching the meteor shower, I realised that I’d left a little piece of my heart in The Hidey Hole when it was blown up. I never really saw those friends again since that was our last year at primary school and I ended up going to a different secondary from them. I hated my new school and most of the kids therein, it being largely populated by entitled little bullies, many (but not all) teachers included. There were times when I felt so alone and worthless that I would stay awake all night in tears, dreading the next day. Summer would never be the same again.
As another spectacular Perseid meteor blazed across the sky, I thought about all the close friends who have come and gone from my life. Nothing lasts forever. Not even the mighty Sarinda, whose copper nails and fixings will eventually disintegrate. Not even the captain, who seems invulnerable to the stormy seas of life. Not even the first mate, whose fixings are only 21 years old. And definitely not me, whose sails just can’t catch the wind at the moment, it seems.
Having not seen another meteor for ten minutes, I picked up my rucksack and checked that the tide had gone out before climbing down into the lethal mud and its unseen gullets that swallow wellies, sometimes people. As I slopped through the blackness, one last Perseid, bright and green, appeared to fall into Moel Famau across the river, right into the nipple on its peak.
I made my wish before the vapour trail faded out of sight. That’s the rule, you know.
As I walked along the water’s edge, I could hear a boat engine following behind me in the darkness all the way up to the slipway at the boatyard.
‘Alright, Tone,’ came a voice from the darkness. It was one of the local fishermen. ‘See that shooting star fly into Moel Famau?’
‘Yup. What did you wish for?’
‘Can’t tell you that,’ he said, dragging his dinghy up the slip. ‘Wouldn’t come true, would it?’
The M62 won’t be so bad tonight in this sort of weather. The autumn sunlight lends the Albert Dock an air of melancholy, deepening the pits and furrows in the brickwork. Tourists still point and shop and take photographs. Smart office workers negotiate the cobbled walkways with a practised hustle, while art students drift in and out of the gallery like smoke through an open window.
The waitress brings me pizza and a grapefruit juice. It reminds me of when I was in Rome. Everything around me was so different – so foreign and ancient – and yet I was the same as I had always been. I’m suddenly aware that my destination is still 250 miles away across the moors and of how low the sun is. Still time for The Bridge. Still time to make it across at dusk.
I pay the bill, tip the waitress and make for the car park, stretching my legs a little before strapping myself in to this crucifix disguised as a car seat. No matter how I adjust the thing, long journeys always result in some degree of nerve damage to my lower back. I pop two paracetamol and get in, kidding myself that this time it will be fine. Sunglasses on, water, money, petrol, debit card, but most importantly, change for The Bridge toll and Blade Runner soundtrack. I wind down my window and enjoy the sound of Scouse gulls and the crisp air before driving off.
It’s ritualistic, but when much feeling is attached to an occasion, is it not customary for all of us to drape things on it, dress it up, throw flowers and confetti at it and such?
Location: Humber Bridge
Music: Blade Runner Blues by Vangelis
There were myriad combinations of music and weather before I stumbled upon this one. Blues in the rain, soul in the snow, rock most other times. The feeling I get from the music is one of being suspended with the stars, as if anything is possible – your head tingles in the presence of some vague, but powerful beauty. The bridge itself is an incredible feat of engineering, an accomplishment of man, but there is something else that creates the rush of blood to head. Being on the road in a tin can on wheels – like everybody else in the chain of brakelights – trusting them not to make too serious an error which might result in an horrific death, is wonderfully absurd, and makes you feel as if you’re part of some illuminated cosmic caravan crawling along under the red sky.
It’s a defiant ritual and who better to give the finger to than our Dr. Tyrell, our maker – the one who so cruelly had us born astride of the grave, as Samuel Beckett described our condition? We will work together to defy his unreasonable curtailing of our lives. We’ll travel across colossal man-made bridges and listen to transcendent music. We’ll eat pizza and drink grapefruit juice. We’ll comfort one another and we shall share our dreams in the hope of building them together. We’ll drive from one side of the country to the other for love, and we shall transcend our pain through the union of our bodies. Nothing will die, even when it dissolves into the tarmac, because the caravan will go on. Why is immortality so important to us anyway, when we have these attainable glories?
‘Do you want this sodding change or not?’ the surly lurkle sneers at me from his toll booth.
I take it from him and apologise for not paying attention, citing a long drive as an excuse. I tell him it’s worth every penny and to have a pint on me. He holds out a wide-knuckled fistful of change and mutters, ‘It’s not bloody pub, ye knur.’
I take the coins and drive forward into the illuminated geometry of The Bridge like an argonaut between the Symplegades, into a sunset laden with wonder and possibility.
It wasn’t that bad. My father often tells me about his father’s job as a steeplejack: that sounds bad. At least I was indoors and not teetering hundreds of feet above the cold, hard ground.
At the interview, I didn’t have a panic attack and smash up a waiting room as Tony Black does in A Smaller Hell. Instead, I was sneered at by a snotty manager for ten minutes before she found out where I went to school and then it was all la-de-da-do-you-know-so-and-so. I knew a few people and suddenly I was the perfect candidate. Never once did she mention the exam grades I had sweated over, or the money I’d raised for charity, or my love of Satie, just the fact that it was lovely to have another Old Birkonian on board. Jolly good show.
I was being welcomed into the inner sanctum of an institution. The lethal polished floors and automatic doors; the toy guns; the sparkling jewellery displays; the luxurious waft of the perfume counters; the smell of the posh Rombout’s coffee and Welsh Rarebit in the cafe. I was usually accompanied by my nan, who would take me there on the bus while my parents were at work.
At 6 years old, the Toy department was sacred ground, scented with erasers, bubblegum and gunpowder from the caps for the toy guns. With the acquisition of a new toy, adventure inevitably followed. At 10 years old, I became obsessed with writing equipment, and would often be shooed away from peering into the glowing glass cabinets. By 16, I was Christmas shopping there with my first girlfriend. We wore scarves and puffer jackets, and I remember her fingers feeling skinny even through her rainbow-coloured wool gloves. She had long black hair, pale skin and green eyes. Her fine cheekbones were always rouged by the cold weather and she shivered a lot in her rusty Nissan Micra with no heater, which made her look very fragile and beautiful.
And so at 24, I found myself working in this castle of memories. And like every good castle, it had a hierarchy within its walls – and like every good hierarchy, it had its tyrants, climbers and victims. It was very much like returning to school. Every morning, I would feel the polyester of my tie catch on the callouses of my left hand’s fingertips: a stark reminder that the dizzying heights of yesteryear – with its six-figure record deal offers, hotel rooms in Manhattan, yachts in Marina Del Rey, famous rock lawyers and all the rest of it – were long gone. Every morning was soundtracked by a lonely drizzle and painted entirely in grey. I was rather disappointed at how things had turned out, apart from being in love with a girl named after a fruit.
The relationship with the fruit girl had deteriorated somewhat since I had returned from America. The hotshot lawyer had turned down the record deal, confident in offers from Sony, Columbia and Epic that never came. Having been with me for several years as a broke musician already, she drank a whole bottle of wine one night and hit me with this: “If you were going to make it by now, you would have.”
I was still deeply in love with this girl, even if she wasn’t in love with me. We’d been together for years and she had been my best friend almost since the day we met. I already felt as though I’d let everybody down after so much hope had been built up over the American showcases. It was like being written into some Kafkan nightmare. She stopped coming to my gigs, stopped calling me and eventually ran off with one of her classmates at uni. I was heartbroken.
Nevertheless, every day, I tightened my polyester noose and bought my bus ticket. Every day, The George and Dragon’s warm wafts of stale ale would greet me on the way in and out of work. Every day, I would get told off for being late back in from my lunch break, even though it would be a matter of seconds. Every day, I would fantasise about windmilling through the China and Crystal departments like someone on day release, just to see the look on my boss’ face.