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Authors: Richard Asplin

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Of course, Laura’s eyes began to glaze over, much like yours are now.

Really, it’s fine. It’s not your problem and not that interesting. So I took the hint and took her cup and she got her coat. She gave me a thank-you kiss that, either accidentally or on purpose, landed a little too near my right ear.

And then she left.

I offered her a cab or a lift but she wasn’t interested. Said she’d stick out a thumb. I went to the window and cracked it open to clear the stale cigarette smoke. I watched her sashay down the steps into the October night, light a cigarette and walk away up the street, heels clicking to the metronome of her hips until the trees took her from view.

I shut the curtains.

 

“We’re baa-ack!” Jane called up half an hour later with a slam of the door. She began to thud up the stairs with bags and squeaky toys and, I presumed, our precious daughter somewhere about her person. “There’s glass all over the pavement out there.”

“Tell me about it,” I called down, quickly creeping back to the lounge to shove letters into a box file, bury statements in my satchel and return silver frames on desks to the upright position. “What news from your dad?”

“Ooh big,” she said. There was the static crackle as she peeled off her jacket and the tinkle of hangers in the hall cupboard. “You won’t believe what he’s done. Where are you?”

“In here,” I said, heart thudding. I buckled my bag and slid it discreetly under the desk, stepping back quickly to view the crime scene.

“Dad has an accountant at Chandler Dufford … God what’s that
smell
? Is that
cigarettes
? Has someone … ? Wait, and
perfume
?”

“Daddy had a stinky drama while you two were out. Didn’t he? Didn’t he? Yes he did.”

Jane and I kissed softly in a cloud of warm milk baby smell, Lana strapped to her chest, her wide blue eyes swimming in and out of focus, watching her parents. I held them both for a moment, my family, swallowing hard, trying to bury the nagging stir in my stomach. Jane’s soft blonde bob, shampooey and clean and familiar against my cheek made my head swim. A deep breath and I broke painfully away.

“Drama?”

I gave Jane the bullet points, following her like a puppy as she unpacked, unhooking Lana and unrolling the blankie out on the floor. Jane was in clumpy Timberland boots, her favourite faded Levis and my dark blue fleece. She rolled the sleeves revealing her smooth pale arms and I watched as she set our tiny daughter down, blowing raspberries on her soft tummy.

“Upshot is, she broke a bottle of your perfume in the
bathroom
? A Chanel one I think?”

“Didn’t know I had any Chanel,” Jane said, getting up and curling into an armchair. “But she got away all right? She wasn’t hurt? The police gave her a lift did they?

“She said she was fine. I offered her a cab, but she just left.”

“You just let her leave?” Jane said. “She was probably in shock.”

“What was I going to do? Restrain her? She wanted to go, I let her go.”

Jane conceded with a shrug. I moved everything along and asked about her father’s news.

“He wants to start a trust fund for Lana. For her education. I had lunch with Catherine and she said Jack’s father had done the same for them when they had little Oscar.” Jane’s eyes shone.

“Trust – ?”

“An investment. I don’t know the details. He wants to pay for her school. Someone from his accountants is going to come and see us to explain it all. What do you think?”

The room went noticeably quiet. I waited for Jane to look up at me.


Pay
for her school?” I said.

“Oh Neil, let’s not –”

“Why does it need
paying
for?”

“Neil,
I
was a boarder from the age of eight,” Jane said. “I turned out all –”

“This is another of his ways of saying I can’t provide for my family, of course.”

“No, this is a gift. It’s what daddies do.”

“It’s not what my
daddy
does.”

“Well your …” Jane let that one trail off. The usual
awkwardness
descended for a moment. Jane pushed on to cover it. “Okay,
it’s what daddies do where
I
came from,” she said. “And where
I
come from is part of who Lana is. Grampsy did it for me, great grampsy did it for mummy –”

And off she went down the bloodline, from stately home to stately home like a hyperactive National Trust guide.

Jane has the oddest relationship to her heritage. Most of the time she finds it hugely embarrassing and covers it all with dropped aitches, Doc Martens and faded Tank Girl t-shirts. But once in a while – which I rarely tire of teasing her about – it all boils over and she goes completely St Trinians. Times like now.

I tried not to listen, trying to concentrate instead on the focus of all this debate – Lana’s gummy wet smile and tiny jerking fists, podgy limbs like plump haggis in brushed cotton skins. I didn’t last very long. Certain phrases have a knack of jerking one back to attention.

“Sorry?” I interrupted, catching my fear and swallowing it hard.

“The shop too,” Jane said again. “Next week some time. We have to call and make an appointment. He’ll bring all the
spreadsheets
and such. Greg somebody,” and she rose, moving to her bag. “Dad gave me his card.”

“The shop
too
?” I wobbled. My world, so I suppose to one extent or another,
the
world, lurched to a stop. My mouth dried up, eyes flicking guiltily to my satchel. “He’s not going to want to spend all evening trawling through the
shop
stuff as
well
?”

“Well, dad said it couldn’t hurt to show him the lot. Apparently there are tax write-offs for the shop dad doesn’t think you’re taking advantage of. It would help this chap to know the whole … ah, here we go,” and Jane handed me a thick business card.
Chandler Dufford Lebrecht – Wealth Management,
followed by some city address. Jane lifted Lana from her blankie and curled themselves into the couch. “Did your Chanel woman stop you getting your accounts done?”

The sweet perfume sting was still hanging about the flat like a drunk guest.

“Huh? Oh I got a good chunk sorted. And what do you mean,
my
woman? She was in trouble. What was I meant to –”

“And your letter? Did you finish … y’know?”

The room fell quiet.

“To
my
dad?” I said, a little loudly. “You can
say it
you know. He isn’t Macbeth.”

“Sorry,” Jane said. “I know. It’s just …” and she fussed with Lana’s babygro. “And I’m sorry before, about –”

“It’s fine, it’s fine,” I waved. “And no, another page or so. I’ll post it tomorrow.”

“And have you –
oof! Who’s a big girl?
– Have you written back to that solicitors yet?” Jane added, holding the baby aloft, nose to nose. “Boaters or whatever they’re called? Told them you’ve sent a cheque? Aww, ooze a dribbly one den? Eh? Ooze a dribble?”

“Cheque? Oh yes yes, that’s … that’s all sorted.”

 

“Would you love me if we were poor?” I asked quietly.

I was propped up in the yellow glow of our bedside lamp, listening to the pages of Jane’s Terry Pratchett turn slowly and the clicky milk breath of Lana between us.

“Poor? What do you mean?”

“If something happened?”

“Like what?”

“Forget it,” I said. “It doesn’t matter. Go back to your book, I’m being … forget it.”

I sighed and stared at the ceiling some more. There was a beige half-moon of damp along the cornicing. A water tank leak that never really got sorted properly. Thoughts wobbled and worried like loose teeth.

“Oh, before I forget,” Jane said, making me jump a little. “Dad’s popping down to Brighton for a charity something or other next week. I said you’d pick him up from Victoria?
Neil
?”

“I mean, I know this place isn’t what your father wants for you.”

“Neil?”

“Hn? Yes yes, fine. And I know how he feels about me and the shop and everything.”

“We’ve been
over
this,” Jane whispered, shifting over towards me, snaking a scented, moisturised hand up to my cheek and giving me a long kiss. She broke away slowly with a smile. “You’re providing for your family. Putting a roof over our heads. He respects that. Just do what I do and ignore all that other stuff. That’s just daddy being daddy.”

“Not easy to ignore when he’s coughing up school fees.”

“Oh let him do it,” Jane soothed gently, giving my hand a squeeze. “He’ll write a cheque and it’ll be off his mind.”

The world lurched.

I stopped breathing. I waited. Swallowed hard. An idea barged in-between us, all fat arse and elbows.

I waited some more. The idea jabbed me in the kidneys and coughed.

“How er … much?” I said, too loudly and too quickly. I fussed with Lana and the duvet a bit to cover my eagerness.

“The fees? Fifty thousand pounds,” Jane said. “Greg thingy will bring a banker’s draft or something with him tomorrow I expect. Oh and while I remember, Catherine and Jack are coming over for dinner next Thursday.”

“Fifty? I-I mean, sorry,
Thursday
?”


Next
Thursday. Guy Fawkes. I’ll do a Nigel Slater or
something
. We can watch the fireworks from the window.” Jane turned and noticed the open book in my lap. “What’re you looking up there?”

“Looking? Oh er nothing, nothing. Just work.” On the duvet lay a greasily thumbed and well-worn comic-book price guide.
Robert Overstreet’s
. 35
th
edition, cracked open near the front as
casually
as I could manage, considering it had 900 pages and weighed more than I did.

“What’s it worth?” Jane asked.

“What?”

“C’mon. It must be in there. Has it gone up?”

“Oh,” I faked. “Same as ever I expect.”

“Dad thinks you’ve forgotten about it. His bank said you haven’t been to see it for ages.”

“Keeping tabs on me now is he?” I said.

I kissed Lana on the upper arm, kissed Jane softly on her
toothpasty
lips and then tugged the duvet about my chin and had a good long stare at the damp patch on the ceiling.

I thought about the box file above the desk. The contents of my battered satchel.

“Does he
have
to come over this week?” I said after a moment. “This Greg guy? Can’t he just send us the money to put away?”

“Dad said it’s more complicated than that. Plus he’s having a look at the shop accounts too, don’t forget? Free expert advice? You’ll have to bring the books home. I thought you’d be keen.”

“Mnn,” I said.

After a thoughtful moment I clicked on the bedside light again, shimmied up the bed and hauled
Overstreet
from the bedside cabinet. I flipped back open to the Golden Age comic listings.

1938 to 1945.

I chewed my lip. I thought about Jane’s father. I chewed my lip some more.

“Hey.” An elbow in the ribs. Jane.

“Sorry?” She’d said something. I’d been miles away.

“I said we’d love you no matter what,” Jane repeated, stroking Lana’s arm. “You take care of us.”

“Right,” I said, taking one last yearning look before slapping the book closed and returning it to the bedside. I clicked off the light once again.

An hour later, Jane and Lana both breathing beside me in the dark, I must have finally fallen asleep because I remember the dream. The Man of Steel
TM
, in handcuffs, heaving a huge, brown velvet chequebook over his head in glorious technicolour, the planet Krypton exploding above, taking his family away.

Forever.

Freud or not, I was in deep shit.

Now.

You might be wondering how my beloved wife came to know about Messrs Boatman Beevers and Boatman, what with all my deskbound subterfuge and satchel stealth? Or you may
alternatively
be asking yourself why I bothered with all the subterfuge and stealth when my wife already appeared to be up to speed with all things solicitor-like?

Well we’ll get to that. We’ll get to a fortnight ago’s surprise second post. The heavy paper, watermark and the City of London address. The letter that should have arrived safely at the shop where I could have disguised it among the other, shall we say, less
immediate
daily post:

 

“Dear Hero Incorporation, I picked up a Donatello Mutant Turtle Ninja at a boot sale for sixty pee. He’s got one hand, made in Korea on his foot (claw?) and his shell has got you are a gaylord written on it in face paints. My mates think it could be worth a hundred quid.

 

It was the next day, Wednesday, 28 October, the day after the car-jacking, just after ten a.m. by the shop clock – a cracked plastic thing with Elvis Presley’s sneery mush on it. Sneery in the way that we’d all be I suppose if we had a layer of dust on our face and two clock hands stuck to our nose.

I had a
Best of John Williams
on the dusty stereo, the theme from
Star Wars
rupputy-pumping tinnily from one working speaker, soggy trouser bottoms and the rest of the post worrying me on the cluttered desk.

I’d had one customer already, a regular. He popped in most Wednesdays to tell me yes, he’d have a coffee if I was having one, sniff through any new posters that’d come in, do a crossword clue in my
Empire
magazine and challenge me to a game from the
shelf.
Downfall, Kerplunk,
maybe a quick buzz at
Operation.
I kept a few faded dusty ones around to kill time with my few more intense regulars. It meant I had to sit uncomfortably close to them of course, smelling their lozenge breath and listening to their phlegm rattle, but on the plus side it meant I got a half hour’s silence without them whittering obsessively on about Bruces Banner, Lee, Wayne and Willis.

The day would pick up of course. As the hands of the clock swept Presley’s quiff from his eyes, Mr Cheng would come and press his nose against the glass as always. But until then, I had just the post to worry me, which it was doing a very good job of.

I filed the Teenage Mutant Ninja Timewaster in the bin along with the other three or four handwritten missives, mostly requests from private collectors for me to either take dusty rubbish off their hands or supply more dusty rubbish for them to annoy their wives with. Of the three ominous A4 envelopes, one turned out to be from the Earl’s Court Exhibition Centre: my contract, a detailed map pointing out Stall 116, Loading Bay C, set-ups times and so on, which I filed away for next month.

The other two – both solemn-looking buff things addressed to Mr Martin, c/o
Heroes Inc
– had me nauseous with nerves, an apprehension not entirely helped by the sick smell of rotten pulp floating up the cellar steps and John Williams who, having
ra-pah-pah-pummed
through
Star Wars,
was now sawing away ominously at the theme from
Jaws.

I was just thinking that I might let the envelopes wait a while and go and have another coffee when, with a ting of the bell and a
well hey there,
one unexpectedly arrived.

 

“And what’s
that
monstrosity worth?” she said, motioning at the wall behind the desk.

“Monstrosity? That, I’ll have you know, is the first original poster I ever owned. UK quad, cost me fifteen pounds. Had it on my wall at college. An absolute
classic
.”

“Never seen it,” Laura shrugged, unloading her tray of coffee and a shiny bag of buns and croissants.

Thankfully for my nerves, she was out of the cocktail dress and into work gear, but even that she managed to carry off with a
moll’s worth of 40s’ vintage sass. She had a thin, flowery top on, low cut in a sheer material, her small white brassiere just visible through the fabric. A thick red belt with a large buckle beneath and a thin black pencil skirt. The heels were gone, replaced by small school plimsolls, the whole thing wrapped in one of those huge dark green coats with the furry hoods. She had her hair pulled back and piled high, but one thick glossy tousle fell across her face. The graze on her temple had faded to pink. Somehow, however, even decked out to distribute mochas to twitchy Soho-ites, she still had a disconcerting way about her. An old-fashioned thing. Hips, heels and cigarettes, all that stuff. You seen
Gilda
? No? 1946? Rita Hayworth, Glen Ford? Or what about
Only Angels Have Wings
? Hayworth and Cary Grant, 1939? Well, she looked like that. Like she’d have fluffy mules under her bed and a gun in her purse. Plus for someone who’d been hauled out of her car and dumped in the gutter by two ASBOs not twelve hours ago, she was holding it together.


You’ve never
–” I repeated back in a stupid high-pitched voice, spilling a little latte. “It’s a
classic
. Redford? Shaw? Newman? Got that Joplin ragtime score?”

Laura peered over the yellowing poster, eyes finally settling on the bottom right of the frame.

“Six
hundred
pounds?” she yelped.

“I know I know. But I’ve had it signed by the artist Richard Amsel, here see?
And
Shaw
and
the director. There’s another dealer who comes in for a drool over it almost daily. It should just be for display really but the way things are, I’m sort of hoping he’ll –”

“And what’s in these?” Laura said. She slid a bun from a greasy paper bag and moved on to one of a dozen or so fat files on the counter among the post and the remains of the morning’s
particularly
heated
Buckaroo
.

“Posters. Well, photos of posters. The originals are in tubes downstairs.”

“Like a nerd
Argos
,” she said flapping past polaroids of
Heat, Heathers
and
Heaven’s Gate.

“Although,
that’s
now ruined,” I said, plucking
Hellraiser
out grimly. “And that.
And
that.”

“Ruined?” 

“Like me,” I sighed. “Down here.”

We moved behind the counter, through the arch and down ten rotten steps from the dull glare of the shop floor to the
single-bulb
gloom of the wet basement. There are in fact twelve rotten steps to the basement but as the concrete floor was still under nine inches of thick black water and Laura’s plimsolls seemed less than aquatic, I thought it best we remained poolside.

“Ohmigod,” Laura said, hand over her nose. “It stinks. This is what you meant yesterday by –”

“Quite.”

“Where does that go?” She pointed across the dripping dungeon gloom to an iron door, purple with rust in the furthest wall.

“Into next door’s basement. Antiquarian books. Fortunately for all his stock it’s rusted over and water tight.”

“Christ. And what’s in all those boxes?”

“Now? Vintage fist-fulls of mushy pulp. Likewise the bottom two shelves all along that wall and everything in those bin bags.”

“Urgh, God. And it all used to be –”

“Yep. Used to be.”

There didn’t seem much more to add. Laura said
it stinks
a couple more times and I agreed a couple more times and that was pretty much that. I snapped off the basement bulb and we ascended to ground level, the furry smell clinging to my sopping turn-ups. Laura started up a new cigarette to cover the black odour, I told her she couldn’t smoke in the shop and she held up her cigarette to demonstrate that she could, look, when Mr Cheng arrived for his daily drool.

“You be oh eBay?” Cheng said, door jingling, pulling his
spectacles
from his brown suit pocket and cleaning them on a pale brown hanky.

“Not yet,” I said.

“Ny Ac Com nuh fouh. Oh prih buh noh bah.”

Mr Cheng never bothered to finish words once he’d started them. It had taken me a few months of conversation to be able to mentally fill in the blanks quickly enough to keep up.

“You shouh looh. Cheh ouh,” he said, sliding on his specs.

“I will check it out. Thank you.”

Laura perched on the edge of the desk and took it upon herself
to open the rest of my mail. I asked her kindly not to, at which point she offered me a withering feminine look – which as I explained, I never know what to do with so I busied myself with Cheng. I watched him crane his neck over my poster for
The Sting,
peering over the signatures behind the glass. He stepped back once in a while to take in the full image, and stepped back in just as quickly to watch the ink, as if he’d spotted it slithering across the faded paper.

“Fye hundreh,” he said, as he did every morning.

“Six hundred,” I said, as I did every morning.

“My guy, he big colleck.”

“Yes, so you keep saying.”

“I geh hih thih, he buy loh moh. Buh he say whon pay moh thah fye.”

I opened my mouth to administer the daily rebuttal but nothing came out. The words hovered apprehensively at the back of my tongue like stage-struck toddlers and for the first time, I allowed Cheng’s offer to ruminate seriously.
Five hundred pounds.
More than I made in a day. More than I made in a
week
. I looked down at my soggy turn-ups and shiny wellies. Thought about the stacks of bin bags beneath me. The rows and rows of sopping boxes. I thought about a Freshers’ Week fifteen long years ago, my
hall-mate
Andrew and I hanging the poster on the wall of my new room. Thought about what five hundred pounds would do.

“Let me think about it,” I sighed finally.

Cheng blinked, removed his glasses and scuttled out.

“See yoh tomorr.”

“I expect so,” I said, and he closed the door behind him with a ting-a-ling.

“Dear Mr Martin, in response to your letter of the fifteenth …

Laura said suddenly. I looked over. She had her cigarette perched between her lips and was unclipping a photograph from the letter in her hand. “Blah blah blah,
without a viewing, we are unable to put an
accurate
valuation …”

“Sotheby’s,”
I said, reaching out for it.

“Although,”
she said, twisting around away from me, lifting the letter out of reach.
“In line with Overstreet’s current price guide, we would estimate a value of –”

“Can I take a –”

“Holy shit, Mr Heroes Inc. I think your problems are
over
. You
own
this?” and she held out the Polaroid. I nodded sadly.

“Don’t get too excited. I can’t sell it. It comes as part of the package when you have an honourable wife.” I took the letter grimly and read it through, chewing the inside of my cheek.

“Honourable?”

“My wife. Jane. Despite her appearance and her love of Tank Girl and Terry Pratchett, her dad is Edward, the somethingth Earl of whassitshire,” I explained. “Walsingham. No, Wakingham? Wakefordsham? One of those.” I dumped the Sotheby’s letter in my in-tray and picking up the final piece of ominous post, tore it open roughly. “Means he’s got a draughty old house in Suffolk that’s falling to pieces. Or is it Norfolk? One of the ‘folks’ anyway. A five-bedroomed whassit off the King’s Road, complains about income tax, thinks I’m a scruffy pleb and drags Jane off in a frock to stand in a field staring at ponies every summer. He likes his extravagant wedding presents of course. They’re designed to keep unworthy sons-in-law in his debt. To
keep one in one’s …

My voice trailed off into a croak as I tugged out the flimsy yellow carbon paper from the final envelope, stomach rolling over and flopping out like a fat drunk on a guest bed.

Shit.

Laura was talking somewhere but her voice was thick and muted, like it was underwater. Like she was sunk. Sunk like me.

I blinked at the final demand and refocused.
Rod-o-Matic, Plumbing & Drainage.

I recalled the man in overalls. The unpacking of gear. The pipes. The hours of juddering compressed air. The repacking of the gear. The apologies.

“What about insurance?” Laura asked, snapping me awake. She was stubbing out her cigarette and popping the top from a coffee. “Doesn’t that cover burst –”

She stopped at the sudden shutter-shuddering slam of the door.

“You Hero? Hey, you?” a wide gentleman barked, barraging in, banging a brown evacuee suitcase against the displays. Draped in a ratty old coat, clearly tailor-made for someone else, a greasy wool hat pulled right down, his voice was muzzled by a spitty scarf.

“You Mr Hero? I’ve got shit to shift. Right up your alley.” Waddling up the aisle, he heaved his battered case onto my photo files.

“Can I help you?” I said, clearing some space.

He flicked the case locks with grubby thumbs.

“It’s me who’s ’elping you mate. What’ll you give me for this lot?”

I put the invoice aside and wiped croissanty fingers on my jeans. Glad of the temporary distraction, I spent the next five minutes rootling through the cluttered contents of the old man’s musty suitcase. Despite everything – invoices and cellars and solicitors and intimidating café staff – I allowed my mood to momentarily lift, feeling the old hope tingle like warm electricity through my fingertips. I breathed it in: the fusty brown smell; the crackle of yellowing paper; the rustle of polythene and dull clink of thick porcelain. Boxes, bundles and bags, bulging with possibility.

Forgive me.

Long forgotten cases like these are the most enjoyable part of a dealer’s life. More than a ringing till, more than that first
cappuccino
. Not due to any rookie pipe-dream of a mythical priceless trinket mind you. Those ideas are pummelled out in the first six months by the fat fists of experience. In almost a decade of running
Heroes Incorporated
, not one of the hundreds of identical cobwebby suitcases has yet to give up more than a tenner’s worth of chipped pop-culture nick-nackery.

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