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A dark comic novel
Spencer Leyton is obsessed with his glamorous student Eva. When The Mob pursue him for a gambling debt should he accept a bribe from Eva or run for his life?Share Tweet LinkedIn Embed pszr.co/JmprG 1945 views
|London, United Kingdom|
|7 publishers interested|
RISK is a dark comic novel.
lecturer Spencer Leyton is a compulsive gambler, estranged from his wife and
children. His friend Justin invites him to a high-stakes poker game and
advances him a £5000 stake. ('Justin could sell snow to the Eskimos –
literally. For some months Justin had sold cocaine to the Inuit community in
Copenhagen'.) The game ends with Spencer owing £10000 to Paula Malone, the head
of a drugs syndicate. She gives him three weeks to find the money.
Spencer is sexually obsessed with a student called Eva. Eva commits plagiarism,
an offence that should usually be punished by expulsion, but she bribes him
with £3000 to keep quiet about it. Spencer has inside information about a
football game, so he bets the £3000 on it, and that is when things really start to go wrong...
Eva demands the leading role in the College Showcase Production, with disastrous results. ('Eva was not wearing the costume she had worn in the Dress Rehearsal. Eva was wearing a sporran. And very little else')
Paula's deadline runs out. It looks like curtains for Spencer Leyton...
giving too much away…
We meet University lecturer Spencer Leyton,
his estranged wife Sarah, and their children. We learn that it was Spencer’s
gambling that caused the breakdown of their marriage.
Spencer goes to work and we meet Eva,
the glamorous acting student with whom Spencer is besotted. He goes to the
races with his friend Justin and wins enough money to give Sarah some
Spencer hitch-hikes to Manchester, meets
Justin and gets involved in a high-stakes poker game. Things go horribly wrong
and he ends up owing £10000 to Paula Malone, the head of a drugs syndicate.
Desperate, Spencer tries to persuade
Paula to reduce the debt. This makes things worse. Eva commits plagiarism
Spencer plays poker with friends and
loses more money.
Spencer sets up a meeting with Eva.
She promises to make him an “offer”, which he assumes will be sexual.
Spencer and Eva meet and she gives
him £3000 to keep quiet about her plagiarism. She demands the leading role in
the students’ showcase production. Spencer puts the £3000 on a football game…
The conventional wisdom is that women read books by women and men read books by men. SPENCER'S RISK has a male author and a male central character but of the pre-readers of the book the most enthusiastic have been women. Certainly the book is meant to satirise the male gaze and I hope both men and women will be amused by that. Having said that, the target market is probably the younger professional man. Also, anyone working (or indeed studying) in a university, the vast poker community and also people who are interested in (or concerned by) the topic of gambling.
Andy Greenhalgh studied English at Cambridge and performed with the Footlights. He has worked as a
professional actor for 35 years. In the 1980s he was a stand-up comic.
television Andy was a regular character in two series of The Hello Girls and two series of The Belfry Witches, both for the BBC, and was a recurring character in EastEnders as Desk Sergeant Lewis
has played Shakespearean roles everywhere from California to Beijing. He has appeared in movies with stars such as Richard Harris, Patrick Stewart and Chris Walken.
Andy also teaches in a University and is a freelance coach in Public Speaking and Interview Skills.
Andy has written stand-up comedy material and a stage play based on his childhood diaries. SPENCER'S RISK is his first novel.
What they say about SPENCER'S RISK:
"An engaging, emotionally honest story about a modern middle-aged man - a loser in more senses than one - by turns funny, gripping and poignant."
- Jeremy Hardy, comedian and writer
"Spencer Leyton is a hapless and hopeless man, seemingly bent on self-destruction - yet, somehow we can't help rooting for him. A poignant, funny and pointed novel. I loved it."
- Rosie Fiore, author of After Isabella and What She Left
I hope my two cover quotes will get me off to a good start. Writing the book has been a very enjoyable experience and I feel as passionate about it as when I started. I work in two separate institutions and will use all the contacts I have there. I already have some marketing experience through my public speaking consultancy. I will start with a book launch at a fairly high-profile bookshop. Social media will be the main tool but I am not averse to standing at a market stall selling it copy by copy.
Martin Amis: Money, a Suicide note (1984)
Amis' style is of course inimitable but there is something of the same dry humour and enjoyment of language in my book, and my central character has similarities to Amis' monstrous John Self.
David Lodge: Changing Places (1974)
Like Spencer's Risk, a satire on university life. The world has moved on since Lodge wrote this but it remains sadly true-to-life. Can the same be said of the next author?
Tom Sharpe: Porterhouse Blue (1974)
The surreal style has strong echoes in my writing but I do not share Sharpe's love of caricature.
Two more contemporary writers who share some of my pre-occupations:
David Nicholls: Starter for Ten (2003)
The university setting and the central character's naïve pursuit of unsuitable women are in the same vein as my book and similar hapless central characters are to be found in Nick Hornby's books:
Nick Hornby: HIgh Fidelity (1995), A Long Way Down (2005)
RISK by Andy Greenhalgh
“Dad, can I have some
Pizza Express in
Clapham on a Sunday lunchtime could be named the Custody Slot. At almost every
table sat an estranged father with his two or three children. Most groups had long
ago given up any attempt at conversation and were tapping at their mobile
phones. Spencer and his children were still making the effort.
“Can I have a look at
that please Joseph?” Spencer took the dessert menu from his son while running
through some mental arithmetic. Three pizzas, two cokes and a cappuccino would
come in at about forty pounds. He knew he had exactly £50 in his wallet and
some small change in his pocket so this was looking a bit tight since he really
would have to leave a tip. Fortunately, his gambling money for tomorrow was
safe in a drawer at home.
“No, look, all this
stuff is really unhealthy. I’ll buy you an apple from the shop.”
“But Dad I really want
a Chocolate Glory and you smoke and that’s really unhealthy...”
“Yeah well try to learn
from my mistakes. I’ll get the bill”. He turned around looking for the
waitress, trying to avoid his daughter’s eye. At the age of 12, Rosie was
familiar with her father’s excuses.
“Dad”, said Joseph,
“Can we go on the Common now?”
“Yeah, course we can.”
Spencer paid the bill, and in deference to his daughter, avoided any
unnecessary conversation with the attractive Polish waitress.
Clapham Common was
glorious on a sunny spring afternoon. Joseph ran ahead while Rosie and her
father walked together in silence. Spencer glanced at her and saw the baby he
had held when she was born. Would he always see her like that? Suddenly she
came out with it:
“Why do you gamble
She had never asked him
directly before. He did not answer. He really wanted a cigarette, but was doing
his best not to smoke in front of his children.
Rosie repeated her
question. “Why do you gamble?”
People had asked this
before, and he had always shrugged the question off. He thought for a moment.
“We’re still just cavemen, I suppose, and we still need the same kind of
excitement. We can’t fight with a sabre-toothed tiger so we gamble instead.”
He decided to change
the subject. “How is your Mum?”
“She’s okay I suppose.”
“Is she still seeing
that David bloke?”
Rosie walked in silence
for a moment, then “Look Dad, I don’t think Mum wants me to talk to you about
this. I don’t think she thinks it’s your business.”
“Well, okay but...”
“No she’s not seeing
David, she’s seeing someone else. I don’t know his name.” She said this with
finality: the subject was closed.
Spencer looked away to
the horizon so that his daughter could not see his reaction. This was a shock.
He had met David and had somehow not felt threatened by a man he found dull and
introverted. But now there was someone new on the scene.
“Do you still love her
Spencer stopped and
stared at Rosie “I... er... I don’t know. I...”
Joseph sprinted up to
them, pointing along the path, “Look at that lovely dog, Dad.” A woman was
coming towards them with a dog on a lead. “I know Dad, you can go out with that
lady and I can play with her dog.”
The woman was close
enough to hear the child’s words. Spencer gave an embarrassed smile and mouthed
at the woman “I’m sorry”. She smiled back. Spencer saw a well-groomed young
woman in a Burberry Trench coat, a red setter on a lead. She looked back at him
and saw a thin man in early middle age who badly needed some new clothes and
seemed to be on the edge of tears.
Spencer and Rosie
walked on in silence for a few minutes. He thought perhaps it was time to head
to the main road and put the children on a bus back to Tooting.
“How’s school?” he
“So what are you
studying in English?”
“Oh right, er… so what
do you think it’s about?”
“Well, it’s all about a
medieval Scottish king, who actually lived in the 11th century,
although Shakespeare was never too fussed about historical accuracy, and
Macbeth wins a battle and kills king Duncan so he can be king, because some
witches told him he could and his wife says he should do it to prove he’s a
proper man, which I think is daft actually, but anyway he becomes king and then
it all goes pear-shaped and he ends up killing lots of other people and then
gets overthrown at the end and his wife goes bonkers.”
“Okay well that’s a
pretty good precis, but what is it about? What is the theme?”
“Blimey Dad this is
like being at school…”
“No, go on, just tell
me what it’s about”
Rosie let out a
care-worn sigh, “Well, Mr Thwaites says it’s the 9/11 play, all about how a
single act of evil can set in motion a cycle of violence and blah blah”
“Okay, and do you know
about the idea of the tragic flaw? An essentially good person is brought down
because of a single weakness within them.”
Rosie seemed to have
lost interest. He let it go and waved at Joseph ahead, pointing him towards the
Rosie spoke again,
“I’ve been told that gamblers will sell everything they have to get gambling
money. Is that true?”
“No, of course it’s not
true. I wouldn’t sell everything to get money to gamble.”
“So what wouldn’t you
sell?” Rosie asked, staring at him.
Spencer searched for
his cigarettes. It was all getting a bit difficult now. “Well, I wouldn’t sell
you,” he said with a smile.
“Dad, you already
Wolverhampton. 18 years
earlier. Spencer sat on a plastic chair at the back of the school hall. It was
a large building from the 1970s, and already showing the signs of age and
experience. A window high up at the ceiling was broken; at floor level there was
evidence of water-damage from a burst pipe. In the middle of the room a
performance area had been marked off with tape and within that space four young
actors were working through stretching and breathing exercises as a last-minute
warm-up. A large bearded man was clearly the leader of the group: he was older
than the rest and would frequently break off from his exercises to bark
instructions at the others. Then there was a slightly-built Asian man with
flowing shoulder-length hair, a tall blonde woman, and finally a small, slim
woman with large blue eyes and a mop of dark curls. Spencer’s gaze stayed on
“They had better be
good,” said the school’s Head of Drama, sitting next to Spencer, “we’ve not had
this lot here before. The last bunch we had here did an anti-violence play. The
kids got so bored they started beating each other up.”
“What are they called?”
“This lot today are
called Hammer Theatre Company”
“As in Hammer Horror?”
“As in Hammer and
Sickle probably. Anyway, good luck to them. Our kids are not the easiest
At that moment the
doors burst open and the audience entered the hall. Spencer, who had never
studied endocrinology, was not sure if hormones could be characterised as
solid, liquid or gas, but he was aware of a herd, river or cloud of hormones
somehow streaming into the room as 200 teenagers found their seats. For a few
moments the decibel count exceeded the industrial safety limit, until the more
zealous teachers succeeded in getting it down to manageable levels. The school
was in a very poor area of Wolverhampton: the kind of neighbourhood where the
main local industry is Jury Service. The noise was a mix of Black Country
whine, Jamaican patois and the odd snatch of Punjabi. Finally, the audience
settled down and the Hammer Theatre Company began their performance. The play
lasted about an hour and dealt with racism and the police, bullying and drugs
and held its audience as if they were entranced. The small dark woman played a
male police officer, a Jamaican grandmother, two separate adolescent girls, a
headmaster and a police dog. She was completely convincing in every role and
Spencer was speechless with admiration. (In a surreal section of the show she also
played a traffic bollard. This was her least successful casting.)
At the end of the play
Spencer sidled over to her. She was putting props into a skip.
“Er, excuse me, my
name’s Spencer Leyton. I wrote to your office about coming to see the play and they
very kindly said I could… er, sorry, I didn’t catch your name”
“I didn’t throw it.”
There was a slight West
“Er, right, yes…
hahaha… anyway I would really like to talk to you and of course the other
members of the company about your working methods. You see, I’m studying Drama
at Birmingham University and I’m writing a paper on the uses of theatre in
non-theatrical situations, looking at the efficacy-entertainment continuum and
the pluralities of applied theatre.”
“What the fuck does that
“Well, theatre in
schools and that kind of thing…”
“So why didn’t you say
“Well, I suppose it’s
just the way we talk in universities.”
She closed the skip and
stared at him. Spencer stared back into those large blue eyes. “Universities
are about as relevant as cemeteries” she said, “they are a bourgeois
celebration of the values of Dead White Men.”
Spencer drew a long
breath, “Well, I think there’s a bit more than that to it, but obviously I
respect your position.”
She looked at him pityingly,
“And that’s a typical patronising two-faced bourgeois response. My name’s
Sarah. You can come to the pub with us if you like.”
Spencer was crammed
into a small van with the props and the four actors. The large bearded man
drove the van and talked incessantly for the journey. His name was Rodney but
he preferred to be called Che. Then there was Sanjay, Jean, and of course
Sarah. Che explained that the Hammer Theatre Company had been formed ten years
earlier by himself and a group of comrades, although he was now the only
original member. The company, he explained, was run as a workers’ collective
along strictly democratic lines. At this point Sarah tried to interject but Che
simply raised his voice and talked over her until she gave up. The point of the
company was to use the medium of theatre to raise the consciousness of the
working-class youth of the West Midlands.
“What about the
middle-class youth?” asked Spencer sincerely.
Jean and Sanjay
sniggered, Sarah snorted, Che shook his head in disbelief and pulled into the
car-park of The Nailmakers Arms. “See you Monday” Che shouted, and drove off as
the others piled into the pub.
After two pints of
Banks’ Bitter Spencer had learnt that Sanjay, Jean and Sarah had all been in
the company for a few months and had put on two plays for local schools. Che,
Sanjay and Sarah were all members of the RCP (Revolutionary Communist Party),
while Jean was a member of the RCG (Revolutionary Communist Group). She had
been admitted to the group because of a typing error in her letter of
After four pints of
Banks’ Bitter Sanjay and Jean had gone home, leaving Spencer and Sarah
together. By now he had learnt that she was 19 to his 22 and that her father
ran his own business. She had done well at school, particularly in Drama, and
Hammer Theatre Company was her first job. She had also recently broken up with
her boyfriend. By now Sarah was stroking his leg and explaining that it was
getting quite late to go all the way back to Birmingham so if he liked he could
stay at her flat for the night.
Later, Sarah slid into
bed next to him. “Look, Spencer, we can’t actually go all the way, I mean not
full sex… er vaginal sex.”
“Yes of course,”
Spencer replied hurriedly, “yes, I totally understand. Other women have said this
to me, that vaginal sex, with the man penetrating the woman’s body, could be
seen as intrusive and oppressive. It could almost be a metaphor for
“No, I don’t mean that
you dickhead. It’s just that it’s the time of the month.” They lay in silence
for a moment, “You can take me up the bum if you like.”
And so their courtship
began. If they went out in the evenings it was generally for a curry or perhaps
the cinema. Spencer sometimes suggested a trip to one of the Birmingham
theatres but Sarah felt that any shows that went on in such places would be
bourgeois rubbish, although she could occasionally be dragged to see feminist
theatre companies in small university arts centres. They spent most weekends together at Sarah’s
flat and would often catch a bus into the countryside skirting the Black
Country to take a long walk together. On one occasion Spencer took Sarah to the
races at Worcester but she bored of it quickly. She disliked the idea of
betting on the horses and (surrounded by the racegoers of Middle England) felt
that she was behind enemy lines. Spencer learnt quickly that wearing her
politics on her sleeve did not make her any the less sincere in her views. He
regarded himself as a socialist but Sarah seemed to be somewhere to the left of
the Baader-Meinhof Gang. If she talked about politics he usually deferred to
her. He generally disagreed with what she said but simply preferred it when
they did not argue.
Always she would
explain it away politically but there were times when he felt that she was
simply manipulating his emotions. One minute she would be squeezing him tight
and kissing him, the next she would be explaining that men and women could
never have close relationships because they were divided by the bottomless
chasm that had been dug by patriarchal capitalism. Was she just trying to
provoke him, just trying to get a reaction?
Early on in their
relationship Spencer took Sarah on a country walk and they visited a small and
deserted village church. It was thought to date back to the end of the 13th
century and Spencer wandered around gazing at the ancient stone carvings and
the stained-glass windows of varying age and quality. Suddenly, Sarah pulled
him behind a large stone pillar. She kissed him and whispered in his ear,
“How about a blow job?”
“I’ll kneel down in
front of you and suck you off”. She was smiling at him mischievously, “I can
kneel on one of those cushions they use for praying.”
“What, a hassock?”
Sarah giggled, “Yes, a
hass-suck. How about it?” She was starting to undo his belt.
“No, look Sarah, I
don’t think this is quite the place.”
“What, because we’re in
a church? Are you a Christian all of a sudden?”
“No, but it’s just not…
it’s not appropriate”
“Spencer, you have made
it quite clear to me that you do not believe in God and that you agree with me
that organised religion is a reactionary force that should be brought to an
“Yeah but I still don’t
feel comfortable… it just seems…”
“There’s nobody here,
unless you think the angel Gabriel is looking down on us.”
“No Sarah seriously I
“You’ve always said the
main legacy of Christianity was sexual repression and now you seem to be going
along with it.” She had taken a step back and was staring him in the eye. “Maybe you just don’t fancy me anymore.”
“No, don’t say that…”
“I can say anything I
fucking like Spencer”
“Yes, of course, but
this is not about respect for religion, it’s sort of about respect for an
ancient building.” He was wishing she wasn’t so attractive.
“You’ve often called
churches Monuments to Folly”
“No, look, what I’m
trying to say is that buildings… they take on the associations of all the
people who’ve ever used them and this building has been used for prayer and
that spirit pervades the whole place and I just wouldn’t feel right about…”
“What utter bollocks.”
Sarah stalked out of the church.
Spencer had never had a
serious girlfriend before and he was experiencing emotions that he did not
recognise. He felt sure that if he told her he had fallen in love with her
Sarah would say that the whole notion of romantic love was part of the
patriarchal capitalist conspiracy to subjugate women. Spencer felt maybe she
had a point, but he in love with
As part of his research
for his dissertation on applied theatre Spencer attended a few rehearsals of
the Hammer Theatre Company. As a workers’ collective they practised a
democratic approach to their rehearsal method. They had no overall artistic
director but staged the play as a collective endeavour. Che, however, would
turn up for rehearsal with a sheaf of notes on staging and characterisation. He
explained that these were merely “suggestions to kick them off” but if any
“suggestion” was not taken up he would sit in the corner and sulk for the rest
of the session.
On one occasion Sanjay
brought in a song that he had written for their next show. It was a beautiful
and powerful song about the feelings of isolation experienced by a recent
immigrant to Britain. After he had played it to them everyone sat in respectful
silence for a moment before Jean spoke up.
“I think it’s great
Sanjay but I’m just thinking about our core principles as a theatre company and
we are committed to challenging our audience, right?”
“Oh yes, definitely”
“So, I’m thinking that
to have this song performed by an Asian man might be a bit obvious. Do you see
what I’m saying?”
“Well it’s about the
experience of a recent immigrant…”
“Exactly, so I’m
thinking that if you sang it that would be kind of reassuring to our audience,
I mean, sentimental even…”
“So, I’m thinking that
we should pull the rug out from under the audiences preconditioned expectations
and have it sung by… well, a white woman maybe…”
Sarah spoke up, “Well,
I wouldn’t mind having a go at it.”
“Ah, but yes Sarah,”
countered Jean, “but you see you’re a soprano and that kind of plaintive female
voice in the context of this song could be seen as depicting the Woman as the
Victim, and we are very strongly opposed to that, aren’t we?”
Sanjay and Che nodded
vigorously to register their implacable opposition to the depiction of Woman as
Victim, and Jean continued, “So I’m thinking that the more powerful, the more
authoritative contralto voice might serve our purposes artistically and
And so it was that Jean
was provided with a song she would sing in the show and which she could use as
an audition piece when she was applying for jobs to help her escape Hammer
They had been seeing
each other for a few weeks when Sarah submitted to parental pressure and
escorted Spencer to the Shropshire borders for Sunday lunch. They were met at
the station by Sarah’s father Ray, in a gleaming blue BMW 5 series sedan. Ray
clambered out of the car, pecked his daughter on the cheek and clamped
Spencer’s hand in a knuckle-shattering grasp. He had the stocky figure of a man
who had played sport earlier in life and in middle-age had let the muscles run
to fat. The straining shirt-buttons suggested that Ray was dressing for the
body he no longer had. He stationed Spencer in the front seat and turned the
key, an unmistakable smile on his lips at the satisfying roar of the engine.
“This particular model
has the 4.9 litre V8, so it’s got some poke to it. I’ll show you.” Ray stamped
on the accelerator. “It’s only a couple of miles up the road anyway.” He
manoeuvred through the traffic with skill and then let the speedometer climb as
he moved onto the dual carriageway. “What you driving at the moment then
“Er, well, actually
I’ve never learned to drive.”
Ray stared at Spencer
for a moment as if he had said he’d never learnt to breathe, and fell silent
for the rest of the journey. Eventually, he turned the car past an immaculately
trimmed lawn and pulled up outside a very large modern house. Ray’s wife
Shirley, as immaculately trimmed as her lawn, stood at the front door. Spencer
had heard it said that if you wanted to know what your girlfriend would look
like in 20 years then look at the mother. If that were true he thought he was
probably onto a winner.
Things started well
enough with a glass of sherry and Ray explaining that as the son of a factory
worker he had started with a market stall and had built up to a string of
warehouses, while Shirley ran a hairdresser’s in Bridgnorth, fully equipped
with seven cutting stations. Sarah said little, occasionally rolling her eyes
at Ray’s aphorisms: “Time is money” or “There’s no substitute for hard work”.
The meal began pleasantly enough with a starter involving melon but shortly
after the arrival of the roast beef Ray began to talk about current affairs.
There was a Sophoclean inevitability about what happened next. He explained
that John Major was doing a good job of running the country but was
nevertheless not a patch on Margaret Thatcher. Sarah, her complexion darkening,
denounced him first as a bone-headed reactionary and then as a CIA stooge and
Shirley responded by telling her not to be rude to her father in front of a
guest. Sarah would then make it clear that she was entitled to her opinions
thank you very much and the pineapple upside down cake was consumed in awkward
Six weeks they were
back to go through the whole performance again, but with goat’s cheese
Spencer graduated with
a First and was accepted for a PhD at King’s College in London. Sarah’s parents
said they would help with money towards a house on the understanding that the
happy couple would marry before they set up home. Sarah agreed to the idea as
long as she didn’t have to dress up like a blancmange and promise to “obey” her
husband, or anyone else; her more left-wing friends felt able to set aside
their opposition to the sexist institution of marriage at the prospect of free
food and drink. Eventually, with assistance from both sets of parents the house
in Tooting was bought. Spencer began his
doctorate, supplementing his income by teaching. Sarah worked as an actor in a
community theatre company until Rosie was born five years later and then Joseph
came five years after that. The doctorate took longer than Spencer had
anticipated and the doors to top-level academia failed to spring open. The Oxbridge Fellowship did not materialise.
The Russell Group lectureship did not materialise. The job at the minor
university did not materialise. What did materialise was a growing family and
the need to earn money. Spencer found himself giving private lessons to
teenagers cramming for exams. Eventually he accepted, in desperation, a
teaching job at an educational institution that had come about through the
merging of two disparate organisations leaving it with the name
Spencer was employed to
teach a course called “Stanislavski and the Realist School of Acting”. It
started as a largely academic and theoretical course but his students’
unwillingness to open a textbook eventually forced a change. The course became
more practical and he spent most of the time working with games and acting
exercises. The management of the college did not seem to mind. As long as they
had a full quota of fee-paying students they were happy.
How he had been offered
the job in the first place mystified him. At the interview he had talked at
length about his PhD thesis and that had gone down well. His subject was “The
connections between Stanislavski and Greek Tragedy”. There are, in fact, no
connections between Stanislavski and Greek Tragedy but that was not going to
stop him. Since none of the interviewing board had ever read a single word of
Stanislavski, either in the original Russian or in one of the many turgid
translations, Spencer had the advantage. He had rambled on about the Given
Circumstances and the Classical Unities and peppered his remarks with phrases
in Russian and Classical Greek. Naturally he dragged Shakespeare into the
discussion, wallowing in the notion that both Shakespeare and Sophocles have
heroes who are essentially noble characters brought down by the “Hamartia” –
the tragic flaw. He quoted liberally from Leavis and from Bloom, and
occasionally from critics he had actually read. He made much of his own
experience as an actor. He claimed to have worked with three professional
theatre companies. He had in fact made three visits to the Edinburgh fringe
with student groups: on each occasion he had played a different small part in a
different production of He
claimed extensive experience as a screen actor: the truth was that he had spent
six weeks working as a Film Extra at Pinewood.
Once he had started
work at the Conservatoire his life settled into a routine. He worked till 5pm
on most days and would often then spend a couple of hours in the pub, and
sometimes a couple of hours in a casino at Leicester Square. On Thursday
evenings he played poker with a group of friends. His Saturday afternoons were
invariably spent in the betting shop. Sarah looked after the children. She
rarely asked Spencer to stay at home in the evening so that she could go out
with her friends, and Spencer rarely offered to do so. There was still a
physical passion but their worlds seemed further and further apart. Spencer’s
world revolved around gambling, a job with diminishing intellectual challenge,
his colleagues and his students. Wisely, he avoided mentioning to his wife that
most of his students were attractive 19-year old girls. Sarah’s world centred
on her children and the friendships she made at the school gates. She had
little contact with her old friends from school and the Hammer Theatre Company.
Wolverhampton seemed a long way distant now. When Joseph started school she
tried to resume her career as an actor, but found that, for women, getting a
job in community theatre companies was as competitive as the West End.
Disenchanted, she found a part-time job in a local library. Surrounded by
books, she read little. Her daily round was the school run, shopping, a few
hours work at the library, house work, the second school run, cooking, reading
stories for the children and then collapsing with a glass of wine in front of
the TV. She watched the kind of TV shows that as a younger woman she would have
denounced as insidious right-wing propaganda and bourgeois pap. In her heart
she still denounced them but Spencer knew little of what went on in her heart.
Many people find that their political views become more moderate as they get
older: it was hard for him to say if this was true for Sarah. After Rosie’s
birth she stopped talking to him about politics and a couple of years after
that she stopped talking to him at all.
When they bought their
house they had loved it for its quirky Victorian character. After a few years
the roof and the guttering had become a little too quirky and had to be
extensively and expensively repaired. The house had been beyond their means
from the start. Their parents had been generous, giving them money for a large
deposit, but as the children grew, and as their needs grew, Spencer and Sarah
watched the bills pile up between them on the kitchen table. Sarah wanted to
know why someone of his intelligence could not earn more money. Then came her
suspicions about where his money was actually going.
One January night
Spencer returned from his regular poker game. It was past two am and he was
surprised to find Sarah awake. She was on the sofa, staring at the TV, an empty
bottle of wine in front of her. Spencer sat down and asked how her evening had
“How much did you
lose?” Her voice had an edge to it that he had not heard before.
“Maybe I won.”
“No, you didn’t win,
because if you’d won you would have told me the minute you came in. So how much
did you lose?”
“Okay, I lost a few quid.”
“So what does that
mean? Does it mean ten, twenty?”
“Something like that…”
“You see, it just
doesn’t make sense. When you win, you tell me that you’ve won two hundred,
three hundred pounds; but when you lose it never seems to be more than about
twenty. So it doesn’t make sense.”
“What are you talking
“Well it must mean that
everyone else you play with must be losing lots of money almost every week, so
why do they carry on with it?”
Spencer stood up and
hung his jacket on the back of a chair, “Look, Sarah, since you’ve never played
a hand of poker in your life you can hardly be expected to understand how it
all works. I think I’ll go to bed.”
“So you’ve lied to me,
you’ve insulted my intelligence and now you’re patronising me. What’s next?”
“I really don’t think I
can talk to you when you’re in a mood like this.”
“Oh, so that’s what’s
next – you just dismiss me.”
Spencer stood. There
was a long silence. Finally, he spoke, “Okay, well I’m going to bed.”
Sarah spoke very
quietly, “I don’t want you to go to bed. I don’t want you to spend another
night in this house. I want you to pack a bag and leave.”
“What the hell are you
“I’m saying it’s over.
I just can’t stand anymore of this. I want you to go. I want you to go.”
“Well this is a bit
sudden, isn’t it?”
Sarah snapped at him,
“Of course it isn’t a bit sudden you fucking idiot. This has been coming for
years. You must have seen it.”
“Well I know things
haven’t been perfect…”
“Oh for God’s sake…
Just go will you. Just go. Just fucking go.”
“Where the hell can I
go at this time of night?”
“I don’t know. I don’t
care. Stay with one of your gambling friends. I just can’t…” Sarah put her face
in her hands and started to cry.
Spencer stood for a
long time as Sarah wept. Finally, he put on his jacket and went upstairs to
their bedroom. He picked a holdall from the bottom of his wardrobe and packed a
few clothes into it. Without saying goodbye he left the house and walked along
the street where he had lived for the last sixteen years. It was starting to
The alarm clock jerked
Spencer into consciousness. He switched it off, stood up and then was bent
double in a fit of coughing. Eventually he pulled himself up to his full height
and stared at the mirror above the sink. He was 39. There were days when he
felt like 139. Did he look older than his age? Certainly, there was a greying
in his complexion but he had kept all his hair and had not gained weight in 20
years. Surely he wasn’t a bad-looking man? Sarah had always said he had sexy
blue eyes. This morning there was a little too much red with the blue.
Since splitting up with
Sarah nearly eighteen months ago he had been out with two women but it had come
to nothing. He knew that he did not want to be on his own for the rest of his
life. What he actually wanted was to be back with Sarah. Her image floated at
the back of his mind all the time. Except when he was gambling.
Spencer chose his
outfit for the day. This never took long. There was not, after all, very much
choice. He sniffed the armpits of the blue cotton shirt he had worn the day
before. He could get away with it for one more day. Two pairs of navy-blue
trousers lay in a heap on the floor. The first pair had an unidentifiable stain
running down the left leg; the second pair were crumpled but just about
acceptable. There was no dress code where he worked, anyway.
The Northern Line
played no pranks and Spencer emerged from Chalk Farm station at exactly 8.35.
Then came the 9-minute walk to work. More importantly, far more importantly,
this was the opportunity for the first cigarette. There had been a time when
Spencer’s first act of the day was to light up a cigarette. He had weaned
himself off that and lit the first cigarette as the kettle boiled. In turn, he
had weaned himself off that and now lit the first cigarette as he walked out of
Chalk Farm tube station. The result of all this was that he was simply in a
state of utter craving from the moment he woke up until the moment he was able
to breathe the polluted air of North London. Out came the packet. American
Spirit Perique. He was often asked why he smoked that particular brand. They
were not, after all, easily available in Britain. He would explain that
American Spirit were additive free. In terms of long-term health risks this was
a bit like leaping out of the 19th floor instead of the 20th.
Not that Spencer had ever concerned himself with the health risks of smoking.
There had been the brief period where his smoke of choice had been Capstan Full
Strength. Coughing up blood every morning had put an end to that. Of course the real reason that he smoked
American Spirit was because he thought they made him look cool.
Spencer walked up the
hill away from the station smoking earnestly. What was the first brand of
cigarette he ever smoked? Number 6 of course, given to him by Micky Calloway at
the age of 14. He could have stopped then and there. He killed the cigarette
outside the large Victorian building that was his place of work. He stared up
at the banner above the front door: The
North London Civic and Municipal College
and Conservatoire de Pratique du Theatre. He had read that banner every
working day for ten years and he still could not quite believe it. There were
students hanging around so Spencer attempted to impress them by bounding up the
steps two at a time. He was breathing a little too heavily when he reached the
He walked through the
college reception area. It was common practice for drama schools to bedeck
their walls with photos of distinguished ex-students. RADA had John Gielgud,
Charles Laughton and Anthony Hopkins. Central had Peggy Ashcroft and Laurence
Olivier. Spencer’s college had a man who used to be in The Bill. The students
were waiting in the drama studio. There were 18 of them in all – 15 of them
young women. They hailed from all over Europe and North and South America. Some
of them were interested in acting. All of them wanted to be famous. They saw
Spencer's class as the first step to Hollywood. Spencer knew that for virtually
all of them it would be the first and last step in that direction. He disliked
the word “talent”. He felt it was a word used mainly by people who didn’t have
any. He clung on to the idea that everyone had potential: they just needed that
potential to be unlocked. But he knew perfectly well that that was not enough.
They were trying to enter the most competitive of all professions – and the
most disciplined of all professions outside the armed forces. Also, the gender
ratio in his class was typical of drama classes anywhere in the country.
Spencer had sometimes muttered to colleagues that if you possessed a penis you
were virtually assured of a place, and everyone else had to fight like rats.
Then there was the question of looks. A young man could have a quirky look and
find acting work. The girls had to be pretty, or else wait 15 years until they
could become a “Character” actress. If you did have looks and acting ability
then you just needed luck – luck this year, luck next year, luck the year after
that until you finally gave it up and tried to find something else to do with
Spencer was jerked from
this depressing reverie when his eye fell on Eva. His eye often fell on Eva,
the way a wolf falls on a lamb. Eva was a 19-year old Greek girl who apparently
had already established a lucrative career as a model. Tall and blonde she
looked Scandinavian rather than Greek. Spencer wondered if she was aware of the
effect she had on most of the men in the college (and some of the women too).
The students were required to wear anonymous black rehearsal clothes but Eva’s
outfit did not hug her figure so much as grasp it with the desperation of a
jilted lover. As usual, she was in conversation with two other Greek girls,
Vaia and Andrea. Spencer had nick-named this Hellenic trio “The Furies” since
their triangular relationship seemed to plunge from intimacy to animosity without
warning. At this early stage of the term Eva had already been threatened with
expulsion from the Academy. She had been disrespectful to some members of staff
and had been persistently late or indeed absent. Having missed classes the
previous Monday she had explained that she had been compelled to visit the
hairdresser. In Athens. A heated Faculty meeting had taken place over whether
or not Eva should be expelled from the Academy. The Department was split.
Stephanie, Jane, Miriam, Ingrid and Martha all wanted her expelled. Spencer,
Dave, Justin, Harry and Marcel all wanted her to stay. Finally, Duncan De
Beaune as the Principal had the casting vote. He felt that yes in the
circumstances she should be given another chance.
In the corner sat three
American students: Caitlin from New York, Caitlin from Chicago and Caitlin from
Nashville. Twenty years ago there must have been someone called Caitlin who
achieved national but short-lived fame. Nashville Caitlin had studied acting at
Vanderbilt and at Pace, but had come to London convinced that British acting
was the envy of the world. Spencer longed to show her some YouTube clips of
For the past few
classes Spencer had been trying to demonstrate the importance of status. He had
explained to the class that all scenes, any drama, had to depend on a status
relationship. Comedy often came from a character whose status was suddenly
lowered. A pompous man slips on a banana skin and falls over – funny. This
morning he decided to push his students a little further. He introduced the
theme of Courage. Acting, he explained, was about making choices and
interesting actors always made daring choices: the compelling actor was the
actor who could take a risk. You take a risk every time you go on stage because
to be on stage is to be vulnerable, but the actor who is restricted by fright
is the boring actor. Spencer preached for several minutes, quoting Stanislavski
and Grotowski and spicing it up with a bit of Artaud.
In pairs, the students
improvised scenes around the theme of status, but there was little imagination
and no danger. Finally it was time for Eva and Vaia. First Spencer tried them
as strangers at a bus stop. They stumbled to a halt, apparently unable to think
of anything to say. The other students were shifting about. They seemed bored.
Spencer decided to take a risk. “Look Eva, Vaia, er… try a doctor and patient
scene, but do it in your first language.” The two girls stared at him. He
stared back at them. Actually he stared at Eva. “Yes, look, try it in Greek.”
It worked. Both girls
freed up. The scene (although incomprehensible in detail) was natural and
funny. “That was brilliant”, said Spencer, “try another scene – teacher and
student” Eva and Vaia began to improvise a scene in Greek and immediately Andrea
started to snigger. So did some of the other students. Clearly he had missed
something. Vaia, as the teacher, seemed strangely familiar. Andrea was now
doubling up with laughter. Vaia’s gestures were his own, and she had taken on
something of his vocal pitch. Vaia was playing him, but in Greek. Suddenly Eva,
as the student, stalked over to Vaia and kissed her full on the lips. Eva
turned and gave Spencer a small tight smile. Andrea had stopped giggling and
was staring at the floor. All the other students were staring at the floor.
“Er, thank you, er …
very good… er … see you tomorrow,”
Dazed, Spencer walked
back towards his office. He was met in the corridor by Jane Greenaway, head of
the Theatre Arts Department.
“You know there’s a
meeting at 5, don’t you?” said Jane.
“But we’ve just had a
“That was a Faculty
meeting. This is a Planning meeting.”
“I’ve done my planning
for the whole term. I could tell you exactly what I’m going to be doing for my
morning class on the third Tuesday of November.” He paused for effect.
“What are you doing then?”
“What will you be doing
in your morning class on the Third Tuesday of November?”
“Well, obviously I
didn’t mean…Actually I’ll be telling them to speak up and not bump into the
furniture. Look Jane, all these meetings …”
He decided to try his
Little Boy Lost look, dropping his chin slightly and looking up at her through
his eye-lashes. It usually worked on Jane. “You see Jane, it’s difficult at the
moment – the situation with Sarah…”
“Actually Spencer, your
little boy lost look doesn’t work on me anymore, and as you well know I have a
husband who is in hospital at the moment and a daughter who is doing her best
to be kicked out of school, so spare me all that if you would. I’ll see you at
At lunchtime Spencer
was to be found in the Smugglers Arms for a quick pint and a Scotch Egg. In
fact, of course he was to be found on a stool outside the Smugglers Arms
because since the loathsome and accursed Spanish-Inquisitorial Fascistic
Stalinist Smoking Ban he could no longer get through the six American Spirit
that was the real point of Spencer’s lunchtime. Since cigarettes are the most
smuggled item in the world today spencer could not help thinking that it was
beyond the surreal that he could not smoke in – of all places – the Smugglers
Arms. Then it was twenty minutes in the betting shop – and again much of that
time was spent outside, since incredibly and unbelievably the Kafkaesque
Orwellian Nazi Health Police held sway there too. Spencer strode into the
bookies just six minutes before the 2.20 at Brighton. He inspected the
magnified pages of the Racing Post pinned to the wall. It was an Apprentice
Handicap over 1 mile and 1 furlong. A tough one, thought Spencer. He looked at
the form, assessed the historical effect of the draw, examined the handicap
ratings and glanced at the betting screens to get some idea of what was being
supported in the market. He was making his judgement about the record of the
competing trainers when a large black fly buzzed past him and landed on the
newsprint immediately in front of his face. Spencer loathed flies.
Instinctively, his hand lashed out and he crushed the fly against the section
of the newspaper showing the race-card. Spencer could not help himself. The fly
had met its end on horse number 3 “Frosty Secret”, currently trading at 10 to 1
in the betting market. Spencer’s fingers closed on the 10 pound note in his
In Dante’s Inferno,
certain criminals suffer a unique punishment. Their souls fall to hell not at the
end of their lives, but at the moment they commit their crime. From then until
the end of their physical existence they move about the earth inhabited by a
demon. They conduct their normal business but are devoid of psyche and true
volition. They act as soul-less husks. Spencer drifted husk-like towards the
counter, betting slip in hand. It was as if he were acting as a pawn of some
If the 2.20 at Brighton
had lasted for just one furlong then Spencer would have left the shop 100 pounds better off, because at the
first furlong Frosty Secret was in the lead. Sadly, it weakened and a mile
later came in fifth.
Spencer trooped back to
work and at 5.00 he opened the door to committee room number 3, ready for the
planning meeting. Several of his colleagues were already in place. On the far
side of the table sat Jane Greenaway. As Spencer’s immediate superior Jane had
supported and encouraged Spencer and had gone out on a limb for him perhaps a
little too often. She had once told him to go home when he returned from lunch
too refreshed to teach a coherent class. Spencer had sometimes thought that in
a parallel universe he and Jane could have been more than friends. Maybe his
life would have worked out better if he’d been with someone like her.
Since Jane helped
everyone around her with their work as well as doing her own it was not
surprising that she did not have much time to plan a wardrobe. Her solution was
to alternate a series of stylish but sensible trouser suits. Today’s was a
linen version with eminently functional flat shoes. Next to Jane, looking smart
and relaxed in chinos and polo shirt sat Justin, the Technical Director who
also taught basic stage management. Justin was in his mid-thirties and was the
only member of staff who Spencer saw socially. They would meet once a week or
so for some escapade involving gambling. Justin had been a salesman in his
earlier life and Spencer knew that Justin could sell snow to the Eskimos –
literally. For some months he had sold cocaine to the Inuit community in
“Are you still on for
the races?” asked Justin.
Spencer slipped in next
to Harry Macgregor, who taught Shakespeare and verse-speaking. Spencer had
often described Harry as an Old Rogue, but the term was meant with affection.
Harry had a PhD from Edinburgh University. His subject was “The Lost Works of
Shakespeare” – which meant that he had written 100,000 words on plays that he
had, by definition, not read. He boasted of having seen Richard Burton play
Hamlet on Broadway in 1964. He had not been to the theatre since. Harry wore a
tweed suit. He also wore a Macgregor tartan tie and a Scottish National Party
badge, despite the fact that he lived in Buckinghamshire and had not been north
of Manchester in thirty years.
Spencer opened his
lap-top. He had no intention of taking notes on it, but during Faculty meetings
he liked to read and re-read a news item he had downloaded two years earlier.
It concerned an incident at the University of Alabama in Huntsville…
On the day of the shooting, Amy Bishop taught her anatomy and neurosciences
class. According to a student in Bishop's class, she "seemed perfectly
normal" during the lecture. She then attended a biology department faculty
meeting. According to witnesses, 12 or 13 people attended the meeting, which
was described as "an ordinary faculty meeting." Bishop sat quietly at
the meeting for 30 or 40 minutes, before pulling out a 9 mm handgun…
It was a fairly typical
planning meeting. Apologies were heard, minutes were approved, an agenda was
passed round, Spencer dozed off for a while, there was a heated discussion
about travel expenses and a more heated one over whether the communal staff
kitchen should supply macaroons or jammy dodgers. Jane reminded Spencer that he
still had not chosen a play for this term’s production. Funding for research
projects was discussed and there was talk of “Outreach” “Participation” and
“Inclusion”. During the course of two hours the word “student” was heard just
once and that was during a discussion on plagiarism. It was not simply a
question of students pillaging the internet for their assignments – there was
after all sophisticated technology used to detect that. Matters had taken a
turn for the worse with individuals from outside the college hanging about on
the steps offering to write essays to order (for a sizeable fee)
Joseph Ng, an associate professor who witnessed the attack, said: "She got
up suddenly, took out a gun and started shooting at each one of us. She started
with the one closest to her, and went down the row shooting her targets in the
The racecourse – all
the world is there. That is if all the world consists of badly-dressed
middle-aged white men. In truth, a trip to a racecourse is like a trip back to
the 1950s. Even those who are not taxi-drivers somehow manage to look like
taxi-drivers and the three tiers of viewing – Members, Grandstand and Silver
Ring – are symbolic of an outdated British class system.
The racecourse has a
distinctive smell – a mix of cigar-smoke and horse-shit. Yet more distinctive
of a British track is the sound – the sound of the bookies shouting the odds.
“Two to one the field – who wants a bet?”, “Win or each-way… win or each way.”
Other countries have centralised betting systems like the Tote and the
Pari-Mutuel. Only in Britain are individual bookmakers allowed to set up their
pitches and take bets. The bets are made with large bundles of cash –almost the
only cash economy left in a world wedded to the plastic card and the
cybertransaction. Any serious punter nowadays would bet on the internet, on
betting exchanges that eliminated the bookie so that the gamblers could simply
bet against each other. Spencer though, was not a serious punter. As he
constantly reminded himself, his gambling was just for fun.
The pleasure of going
to the races was increased for Spencer and Justin by the knowledge that for
most people this was an ordinary working day. Spencer had built his weekly
timetable with care and a certain degree of deception. How Justin escaped work
was a mystery. They stood leaning on the paddock rail for the first race. From
a betting point of view this was pointless. Both men could read the form, the
statistics and the tipsters, and if a horse had a leg missing that would be a
cause of concern but essentially neither of them knew a great deal about the
animals themselves. They played their favourite game: swapping clichés. “He
looks well in his coat… Carrying a bit of condition… Needs the top of the
ground… Likes to hear his hooves rattle” This was designed to irritate the
tweedy types from Members: the sort of people who were so tweedy that one
suspected they wore tweed underpants. Secretly though, Spencer loved horses. He
could not assess their chances of winning a race but he loved to gaze at them,
admiring the beauty of their bodies in almost the way he admired the bodies of
women. Spencer would never admit this to Justin, partly because it would
certainly occasion some inappropriate joke about bestiality, but also because
for Justin horses were just a way of winning and losing money: to allow any
kind of emotion into the occasion would seem to him almost distasteful.
“Are you still playing
poker?” asked Justin.
Spencer nodded. “Every
Thursday if possible. And the odd Sunday too if we’re up for it. Do you still
Justin nodded back, his
eyes never leaving a horse called Hesbaan.
“You see, to me”,
murmured Spencer, “that’s like masturbation instead of having sex.”
“Maybe some of us
prefer masturbation,” said Justin. Given his reputation around the college,
Spencer suspected this to be untrue. “Do you always play with the same people?
“Pretty much,” said
Spencer, “and people often ask me how I can enjoy taking money from friends but
it just doesn’t feel like that. You build up an intimacy through gambling, win
or lose… and anyway it’s swings and roundabouts: you win one week and you lose
the next”. He realised that he could lie without even thinking about it.
“Well look Spencer,
there might be a big game coming up in Manchester at the weekend, if you fancy
“Yes. I still have a
flat there and I’m often up there at weekends.”
well I might be up for it.” He turned towards the horses, “just let me know.”
“Hesbaan’s the one for
me,” Justin suddenly announced.
“Me too,” said Spencer.
“It’s been running over a longer trip, nearly always seems to get into the
frame.” He took a draw on his American Spirit and doubled up in a fit of
“About time you gave
them up” grunted Justin. The two men split up and began to hunt through the
betting market. For Spencer this was the best part of the event. He strode down
the line, examining the price offered for Hesbaan: 7/2, 7/2, 7/2… until he
spotted a wizened individual called Fitzgerald displaying 4/1. Out came the wad
of notes and at that moment the computerised screen went to 7/2. “Bugger” said
“You want 4/1?” said
Fitzgerald shoved the
£50 into the large satchel hanging in front of him. Spencer found Justin in the stand.
“Did you back Hesbaan?
I got 4 to 1.”
“No,” said Justin, “I
changed my mind. Backed Black Caesar instead. I got 6 to 1”.
“Never change your
mind”, smiled Spencer.
On the big screen in
the centre of the track, the horses were being loaded into the stalls. In the
stands and in betting shops all over the country thousands of men (and a few
hundred women) focussed their greed and desperation on what was, in the end,
simply a question of equine genetics. Spencer heard the familiar mantra of the
tannoy: “They’re under starters orders... and they’re off!” Twelve lean and
muscled animals carrying twelve lean and muscled men crashed out of the stalls.
Spencer could remember
his first bet. He was 18 and he put £2 on Royal Athlete in the 1995 Grand
National. The horse won, unbelievably and unforgettably, at 40 to 1. He had
picked it at random.
He thought back to his
daughter’s question the day before. “Why did he gamble?” It was true that he
only felt truly alive when he gambled but if he were to be really honest about
it he would admit that gambling represented the escape from regulation, from
being told what to do. He had come to feel that almost every moment of his life
was constrained and checked by others, by people who seemed convinced that they
were acting in his best interests. They knew what was good for him. The second
glass of wine would be noted with a raised eyebrow. The unguarded moment of
self-disclosure would be taken as evidence of a deep malaise. His teaching,
too, was regulated. The college encouraged “peer observation”. This usually
meant that one of the more incompetent and under-employed members of staff
would peer at him for an hour to the bemusement of the students in the class.
Only when he was gambling was he a free agent. At the bookies, at the track, at
the card table all the choices were his and his alone.
This first race today
at Newbury was over six furlongs. Black Caesar hit the front and stayed there
...for the full 6 furlongs. Confirmation came over the tannoy: Black Caesar
first, Hesbaan second.
Spencer bet his way
through the second, third and fourth race without success and then in the fifth
race he watched the favourite (carrying his money) go down to a 5/2 shot called
“So how are doing?”
Spencer asked Justin.
“I’m about £20 up”,
“Yeah, me too.”
Spencer was not £20 up.
Spencer was £200 down. Justin knew that,
Spencer knew that Justin knew that, and Justin knew that Spencer knew that he
“Let’s get a drink,” said Spencer, turning
towards the bar.
He placed a pint of Wheeler’s Old No. 3 in front of Justin
and took a sip of his pint of Kreisis Strong Polish lager.
He decided to launch straight in, “Justin, you know
that little difficulty that you had last year?”
“What, when I got caught shagging a student?”
“Well, I wasn’t going to put it in such bald terms…”
“Is there any particular reason why you’re bringing
this up?” Justin smiled at him and dropped his voice, “Do you have plans in
that direction yourself?”
“No of course not,” Spencer replied a little too
firmly, “No, I just wondered if it had all been sorted out now.”
“Yeah, I mean I got off lightly. I think the main
thing was that her parents weren’t too upset about it.”
“And before you ask, no – it wasn’t worth it”
There was a little discomfort in Spencer’s laugh,
Justin took a drink. “The thing is, we only did it
twice and frankly it wasn’t all that good. I mean, there was all the
anticipation and I got really excited and I admit that was partly because she
was quite a bit younger than me.”
“Yes, sixteen years younger than you”
“She was twenty. Look, it was totally legal and people
on the staff have been pretty good about it. I was disciplined for it and I
think everyone is prepared to let it lie. I mean, nobody’s said anything since
it happened. The thing is, I really have learnt my lesson.” He checked his
phone. “Anyway, I’ve got a couple of women on the go now and they’re not
students, I can tell you that.”
Spencer’s phone beeped.
It was a text from Sarah. You are late
with the payments again. Bring £500 in cash tomorrow or you’ll be getting a
letter from you-know-who and you’ll be paying for that too.
For the 4.50 race
Spencer shoved his remaining £90 on Tawhid at 5 to 1. He left the racecourse
(Tawhid having done the job) with something over £500 in his pocket.
On the train back to
London Spencer’s phone rang. It was Jane, “Look Spenser, you’ve missed the
“Your students’ show is
on in three weeks’ time and you haven’t even told us what play you’re doing”
“Ah yes, yes, I’ve been thinking about
this...” Spencer had not actually given it a moment’s thought. “Yes, er...
Macbeth.” It was the first play that came to mind – he could just as well have
said Charley’s Aunt.
What, all of it?”
“No, no, scenes...
heavily cut. Actually the first two acts. It’s a complete story – how Macbeth
becomes king. I’ve done it before – it works well” He had not done it before.
“But your group is
nearly all women.”
Spencer, his mind racing “Exactly. We cross-cast it, so the women play the
men... and the men play the women” He was amazed by his own inventiveness.
Jane pressed on, “But
it’s terribly unbalanced. One student will have a huge part, and some of them
will have almost nothing”
“Exactly... “His mind
raced. “Yes, it will be a kind of incentive production. So the best student
will be rewarded... er, no, no, let them audition. They audition for a part and
that in itself will be very educational, and indeed very pedagogic. I have
given all this a great deal of thought.” Jane knew this wasn’t true but she had
so much on her plate that she didn’t really want to get involved.
“Okay Spencer, if you’re sure. I’ll let Duncan
know. “Great, great... see you Monday”.
What the hell had he
Spencer and Justin
parted company at Waterloo. Justin was bound for Euston and Manchester, Spencer
for South London. Home for Spencer was a tiny one-bedroom apartment in a pocket
of North Clapham that still awaits gentrification. After splitting up with
Sarah he had slept on sofas for three weeks before an old university friend was
able to offer him a flat at a rent that was way below the market rate. Spencer
had accepted readily. One of the reasons for the competitive rent was the fact
that the place was on the 5th floor with no lift: Spencer told
himself that this Himalayan ascent at the end of the day was terribly good for
him, although it never felt like it at the time. He had been there over a year
and still Spencer could not quite get used to his own company. He would return
to the place in the evening and find it exactly as it was when he left it in
the morning. Why was that so sad?
He was putting his key
in the lock when the door across the hall creaked open. He glanced around to
see his neighbour peering at him, the chain still on the door.
“Good evening Mrs
Mrs Bellingham was in
her 80s and lived alone. Alone apart from six cats: the feline odour wafted
across to Spencer and he hoped she would not keep him talking. He had heard her
entire life story more than once. She was originally from Bethnal Green but had
moved to South London as a child, following her father’s death in 1937. He had
volunteered to fight in the Spanish Civil War and had been killed at the Battle
of Santander. It was only later that Spencer realised that Mr Bellingham had
been fighting for Franco. Mrs Bellingham shared her father’s politics.
“I’ve written to the
freeholders again about the mess in the backyard but I bet you they won’t fix
it. They just want our money. They won’t do anything to earn it. Typical Jews.”
“Good night Mrs
Spencer had £10 on
Miracle Man in the 4.10 at Redcar. He watched as the beast pulled inexorably
out of the pack and crossed the line. Spencer smiled to himself with an
allowable touch of smugness. He was not one of those punters who shouted “Come
on my son” at the TV screen. Miracle Man would not, after all, be able to hear
him, since he was in North Yorkshire and Spencer was in London. Miracle Man,
being a horse, would have found the phrase “Come on my son” quite
incomprehensible – as indeed did most of the people surrounding Spencer now.
Spencer was in a betting shop in Chinatown and he was drunk.
Chinatown. It wasn’t just the noodles and the pretty Chinese girls. It was the
fact that you could leave Leicester Square, walk less than a hundred yards, and
find yourself in what was effectively a different continent. Of all immigrant
communities, surely the Chinese were the most opaque. Sitting in the betting
shop Spencer felt excluded from everything around him. He was the only European
in the crowded shop and all the signs were in Cantonese. The complete
incomprehensibility of the language was matched by social codes that were
impossible to decipher. He could see that there were hierarchies and rituals
being played out before him but he could not read the behaviours in the way he
normally would. He loved the feeling of being the Existentialist Outsider, the
lone wolf. It was all a bit Albert Camus when you thought of it like that…
Spencer wondered why
Britain had such liberal laws on gambling. On virtually every High Street in
the country adults could wander into a bookies and blow every penny in their
purse. Nowadays, though, you had to go outside to smoke. You could go to the
pub on the corner and gulp yourself to oblivion if you so wished, and yet you
could not roll up a spliff. Since cannabis has never killed anyone this did not
seem logical. Throughout vast swathes of the globe one could not place a legal
bet. If he hung around Chinatown long enough he could probably buy some heroin
and a child prostitute. So perhaps the difference between a legal vice and a
criminal act was whether or not you paid tax on it. Did prohibition ever work?
Obviously it was possible to prohibit some things: you could prohibit murder
for example, but when large numbers of people want to pursue an activity that
they saw as doing no harm to anyone else, was it really possible to prevent them?
It was not often that
Spencer drank four swift pints at lunchtime, but this morning had been an
exceptional morning. An exceptionally bad morning. He had been to see Sarah and
the visit had been as depressing an occasion as he could remember. As depressing
an occasion since the last time he went to see her anyway.
As always when he got
off the train at Tooting Bec, he tried to find the anagram. It must be there…
“Got into … get boot …Coot Bing… Being Toot... Congo Tibet”. Finally it came to
him...” Bet Cognito”. Then there was the
walk to the house that had once been his evening routine.
Sarah opened the door
and barely acknowledged him before turning her back and walking down the hall
and into the kitchen. There was a faint musty smell. Had it always been there?
He followed her and pulled the envelope from his pocket. She watched him toss
it on to the table.
“Is it all there?”
Her eyes narrowed, “For
God’s sake, why can’t you just do what you’re supposed to do?”
“I’m fifty pounds short.
I’ll put a cheque in the post on Monday.”
She snapped at him, “I
don’t have to deal with this you know. That’s why we have lawyers.” She took a
deep breath, showing him she knew how to calm down, when necessary. “I need another £300 by the end of the week.
I’m taking the children away for half term.”
“Are you? Where are you
“We’re going … look I
told you all about this. We’re going to Devon. I have to pay in advance for the
accommodation and it costs £300.”
“Okay… £300. Okay”
Spencer’s gaze moved
around the small, scruffy kitchen. She never used to leave dishes piled up in
She looked at him full
in the face. It was the first time their eyes had met. “Still teaching at the
“Actually, I don’t have
to deal with that either. I don’t denigrate what you do, do I?”’
“You don’t even know
what I do”
“Well, actually I do
know. You work in a public library.”
Sarah gave a snort,
“Yes, well… that just shows you. I gave that job up months ago. I work in a
wine shop now.”
“A wine shop? Really?
How on earth…?”
“You look terrible.
Can’t you afford razor blades now?”
Spencer attempted a
smile, “You used to like me with a bit of stubble”
“Yes, it’s odd that
isn’t it? The characteristics you fall in love with are the very things you
hate most when it all goes wrong.”
Spencer had not been
expecting this. He groped for a response, “Or as the heresies that men do leave/Are hated most of those they did
“Yes that’s it,” said Sarah. “I
used to love it when you quoted Shakespeare at me. I mean, I knew you were just
flaunting your erudition, trying to make me feel small in a way but I didn’t
mind. I found it endearing. But now you see, I just think it’s irritating, I
just think it’s a way to shut people up so that you can talk. I think it’s
rather pathetic actually. I mean why don’t you just wave your dick at me?”
“Oh yes of course, because Shakespeare is all part of the Patriarchy
“Shakespeare isn’t. You are.”
Spencer turned to go.
“I had hoped,” he said, “that for once we could be a bit more civilised about
interesting concept. The So-called civilised nations destroyed the environment
and created nuclear weapons. The So-called primitives live in small
self-sufficient communities and never do us any harm.”
“Yeah well I’d love to
hear your views on the Noble Savage, but...”
“I hope you can take
the children out for lunch again soon.”
“Yes, of course…”
“God knows how you can
Spencer was crumpling
inside. “Maybe next weekend. I’m not sure... are the children here now… I’d
like to see them.”
“They’re not here. They’re
both out with friends. If you’ve started fucking the students can you keep them
out of sight when the children come?”
Spencer was shocked.
She had never raised the subject before. “Where the hell has that come from?”
“Oh. I seem to have
touched a nerve” Sarah said, her face twisting into a smile.
“My God you’ve
“Yeah, well you changed
On the return journey
Spencer did not get off at his stop. The tube went through Clapham North
station and he remained in his seat.
He got off at Leicester
Square and walked purposefully into the Porcupine. On this sunny lunchtime it
was, of course, packed with tourists, but he had fond memories of the
Porcupine. Before university he had taken a Gap Year – a Gap Year that he now
felt had turned into a Gap Life. During that time he had spent six weeks
working in an office just off Leicester Square. The work had been dull, but was
enlivened by what became known as “The Quick One Over The Road Syndrome”. After
work he and two or three colleagues would go for “a quick one over the road” at
the Porcupine. This would usually culminate in the “Falling Asleep On The Tube
Syndrome” and then the “Waking Up At Heathrow Syndrome”. Spencer could remember
the legendary evening when, after many drinks, he had managed to go to Morden.
Spencer drank four
pints, nipping outside after each one for an American Spirit. Then it was
Chinatown and the betting shop, and then home. No sign of Mrs Bellingham
tonight. Spencer assumed that she was busy with her project of translating Mein
Kampf into rhyming slang.
George Cox pulled his
Audi onto the M6, heading south. He had missed the Manchester traffic and would
be home in three hours. He could have gone by train but having his own car had
given him the chance to go where he wanted, when he wanted. It had not been
necessary to contact the Manchester police. He was, after all, on extended
leave. It was not his first visit but this time he had driven out to Altrincham
alone, to see what kind of a home can be financed by other people’s misery.
When he saw the size of the place it made him even more determined. So he had
nosed around a little more. There was not quite the Wall of Silence he had
expected. Some people were prepared to talk and nobody seemed to like her.
Every local villain seemed to hate her, including the people in her own firm,
or so it seemed. The Wicked Witch of the North-West. He would be back soon, to
hunt a little more.
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