Sunday, November 23, 2014

Pass the Chianti & Imodium, per favore

Don’t get your daughter in a rage, Mrs Worthington. She’s already moist eyed, although it’s hard to tell if that’s from the beauty of Florence or the tear gas. Lift your Dr Scholl's, Mrs W, we must reach the bus before the next polizia baton charge. Look! She’s waving frantically from the bus wind … dear, dear.  Perhaps next time not with a red bandana. That rubber bullet is going to leave a nasty bruise.

All aboard Chow Bella Gourmet Tours. Not all, you say. Davvero? Mr Condomine is apparently still queuing for the Uffizi loos. A show of hands: who’s in favour of circling back to rescue him? A wise choice. You’d miss San Gimignano by candle light, and he’d miss the opportunity to show his resourcefulness.

Speaking of loos, we’ve almost cleaned up the bus’ after Madame Arcati’s distressing incident post her seafood linguini lunch. If someone in the back row could wedge the door shut with an umbrella tip, we should be safe-ish until at least Siena.

Yes, yes. I realise the protesters are rocking the bus. It’s a local custom when farewelling friends. No, I’m not certain why they’re rioting. The Italians are such an emotional people. Now, everyone give them a wave while Marco reverses quickly.

I felt the bump too.

Heavens, it’s Mr Condomine. Edge forward, Marco, you’ve pinned his satchel under the rear wheel. Agreed. He really shouldn’t have worn it so jauntily over his shoulder. I’m afraid he went native at the San Lorenzo markets. Purtroppo, a bag stitched from old goat hide doesn’t make you Marcello Mastroianni.

So. Volunteers to get him on board? Noone? Then let me suggest Mr and Mrs Chase, our honeymooners … if you’re not exhausted. I realise the Pensione Dantesque has somewhat thin walls, but last night it was almost as if you were sharing my narrow bed. Fortunately enough for the other passengers, I’ve made an iPhone recording which … and there they go to help Mr Condomine. Grazie.

Mrs W, I know you won’t mind if he sits on your picnic rug.  Blood is so difficult to get out of leatherette seats.

Patience, everyone. The Chases are making wonderful progress despite the demonstrators’ eggs. They should have Mr Condomine inside shortly. Push him higher up the steps, Mr & Mrs C, I’ll get a purchase under his arms. Buon lavoro!  

Everyone comfortable? Andiamo, Marco. Tuscany awaits our discern 
ing palates.

Naughty girl, Miss Stillington. You know what I said about eating gelato from street vendors. Combine temperatures that melt the bitumen with heavy cream and vanilla bean paste and the result is a rum tum tum. Fortunately, I can let you have Imodium at cost price plus the industry standard mark-up – and a bonus €10 map of San Gimignano’s public lavatories. There’s no need to thank me, just don’t look back. The slightest hesitation could put your fellow travellers off this evening’s Pasta-thon.

Could there be anything more Italian than this long table beneath coloured light bulbs with the flicker of candle light, the scent of mosquito coils and Chianti from – let’s see that label – Albania? I’ll do a taste test. My, my. It’s certainly not an approachable wine but it should distract from the ravioli. And there’s plenty of that left. Some nit-pickers amongst you have complained there appear to be things moving within those pasta pockets. A rap with the back of a spoon usually fixes that. This is the Continent, after all. We can’t bring our sniffy bourgeois prejudices on holiday.

Please, Doctor Bradman, I wasn’t referring specifically to you and your … your niece. How generous to bring her – a lass barely out of her teens – on such a grownup tour. Although the more judgmental aboard the bus have called you a fussbudget, I personally find the sight of a medical chap lathering up with hand sanitiser before touching the bread basket quite reassuring. In fact, if you don’t mind, could you take a peek at this rash on my inner thigh? If the others wouldn’t mind looking away for a moment I’ll unzip and – there, you can see it more clearly under the street light. You don’t think it has anything to do with the bite mark left by Madame Arcati? I thought not.

Mamma mia, I didn’t realise it was so late. The pensione’s manager locks up at 8 p.m. If we hurry, most of us should get through the front door in time.

Tomorrow we’ll be in Siena. Ssssh, the Piazza del Campo will be our little secret. You’ll be the only tourists there – possibly because our piazza visit kicks off at 6am. No need to set your alarms tonight, I’ll nip around before dawn tapping on doors. If you don’t answer promptly, I’ll pop my head into your room. See you then.

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Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN 

Sunday, July 13, 2014

The Shadow Knows

A cigarette lay untouched in the Mutual Broadcasting System’s studio ashtray, leaving a round strand of sagging ash and a few shards of tobacco.

Orson Welles was tempted to take a final puff. Too late. Cue music: Opus 31 of Le Rouet d'Omphale. Then came canned cackling before a sneering voice asked the radio audience: “Who knows what evil lurks in the hearts of men?” Another cackle. “The Shadow knows.”

In fact he didn’t. He didn’t even know what came next in the script. Arriving as usual with a few minutes to spare, 23-year-old Welles had put down his cigarette, picked up the sheets of paper for the first time and nodded at the producer whose facial twitch was worsening.

Standing at a microphone in the centre of the studio, the other actors formed a tight semi-circle, shoulders almost touching, all in character except Welles. His Lamont Cranston role could wait. He was staring past Shrevvy, Cliff, Dr Sayre and Slade Farrow to take in Margo Lane. Her smouldering bedroom eyes could burn down a city block, Welles decided.

The play began. As Cranston, a wealthy man about town, Welles affected a fruity accent contrasting with the tough guy tone of Cranston's crime-fighting alter ego The Shadow. Welles’ performance was delicatessen-grade ham.
Margo, The Shadow’s socialite sidekick, dipped in and out of the storyline. The other characters also grasped a few moments of airtime before The Shadow returned to the microphone.

Thirty minutes later, somewhere in-between being reassured The Shadow knew and the final advertisement for Blue Coal (“Save and be safe with Blue Coal”), the hero solved the mystery of who’d been planting bombs around New York.

Out of her Margo Lane character, Margot Stevenson shook her head at Welles. “Late, always late, Orson. It’s hard to tell if you’re a naughty boy or a spoiled brat.”

 “The former sounds more fun. Speaking of which, how …?”

 Margot turned away, a “Goodnight” hanging in the air between them.

Manhattan was fixing itself an evening cocktail. Welles didn’t need a drink. He was hungry – again.

Jonah’s counter was crowded. Sliding into a booth by the window, Welles looked out at two bums arguing in the middle of the narrow street.

The quality of the air in the diner improved abruptly, the aroma of shift workers and fried fat replaced by something more fragrant. Glancing up, he hoped it was Margot. It wasn’t.

The woman was standing so close to the booth that her perfume invaded his senses, throwing him off guard. She had blonde hair in a sleek pageboy cut, pressed down by a small navy blue hat.

Leaning forward, she hissed: “The Shadow knows.”

 A tap on the window. Turning, Orson saw it was one of the tramps. He swung back. The woman was gone. Then so was the tramp. What remained was a white envelope on the edge of the booth table. He tore the flap open. Inside, a stiff white card had been pasted with letters cut from a newspaper: “Find me or Margo dies.”

Welles was on the pavement in seconds, swivelling his head. The blue hat was bouncing through the crowds, making for the subway entrance.

Down the stairs he trotted and into a carriage, its doors shutting behind him. A glance back at the platform. Blue hat was standing there, smiling at him. In the carriage, two men in dark coats, too warm for the weather, pushed past Welles. Opening the storm door at the end the carriage, they made the risky steps into next section.

Tilting his head, Welles could see the men talking to a woman. Even with her back to him, she appeared agitated. The train began slowing into the next station.

A minute later, Welles was tailing the trio into the street. A Cadillac town car drew up, doors bounced open and a black hood was swung over the woman’s head. Her face turned in time for Welles to recognise Margot. Hero or not, he sprinted down the sidewalk, slapping his palms on the boot as the car took off.

"Need help, bud?” The patrol car was kerb-crawling, matching Welles’ sagging pace. Passenger side window down, the two policemen didn’t look like helpful men.

 Welles’s summary of events earned him an invitation to the back seat. Siren on, the car barrelled through the traffic. Welles spotted the Cadillac sliding into an alley. Siren off, the patrol car came to a halt behind the parked Cadillac.

Bent almost double, Welles followed the two police officers up a darkened staircase. The lead officer used the butt of his revolver to bang on a door. “Police!”

The door edged open. A police boot kicked it hard. Welles tumbled through after the officers.

Standing in a tight semi-circle, the cast of The Shadow was waiting.

Margot Stevenson held out a script. “Next week’s storyline, Orson. You’ll note I’m kidnapped. We decided if you wouldn’t rehearse, we’d force you to.”

"All actors?” Welles asked. He didn’t wait for the answer, holding up his hands he said: “Guilty as charged. I surrender.”

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Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN

Sunday, March 2, 2014

Nine Lives

He was getting too old for this. The drainpipe was held upright by rusting clamps. He tested their strength. Barely a movement. A false promise like so many in the past months. As soon as he shifted his weight, two bolts began to pull away from the white wall, at first slowly then … then he found himself toppling. His gloved hand grasped the branches of a conifer. The tip of his rubber soled boot touched something firm. It held long enough for him to reach for the window ledge. Swinging his leg up, he got a purchase. One push sent him away from the conifer and onto the ledge. He was ten metres above the darkened garden. To the north, the few remaining lights across Cap d'Antibes were bright pinpricks. It was past the locals’ bedtime but partying expatriates would be having un dernier pour la route. The only sign of life at Château de la Croë was the yellow glow of a guard’s lamp moving towards a side door.

Deep breaths. Ronnie couldn’t afford an asthmatic wheeze in the bedroom. The tall windows were partly ajar. How convenient that the Duke and Duchess enjoyed fresh air.

On a wide double bed, the Windsors lay well apart. He in pyjamas buttoned to the throat. She in something shiny that caught the moonlight.

Letting his eyes adjust, Ronnie could see the bathroom door was wide open – a gold-plated, swan-shaped bathtub sat smugly in view. The target painting was on the far side of the bedroom.
Perhaps his reflexes were shot, but he could still move like a cat. Ronnie, Le Chat. Albeit un chat that’d seen one bowl of milk too many. Shoulders back, pull that stomach in. This is the last one, Ronnie, he promised himself again.

The painting was a kitsch oil, barely 30 centimetres across. A small boy stood swinging a bucket at low waves splashing at his feet, his back to the artist. The child could not turn back the tide, and neither could the Windsors.

May 1938. Not a wonderful month for the pair. The British Embassy had ordered them out of Paris before a state visit by George VI and Queen Elizabeth. And here he was, standing a few metres from their crumpled bedsheets, turning the dial of the wall safe behind the painting.

As the safe door swung out, there was a very faint squeak.

“Did you hear that?” The Duchess’ voice came out of the gloom, sending Ronnie, bent double, towards a long drop curtain.

The Duke rolled sideways, pulling a pillow over his head. “Not again, darling. I can feel a headac ...”

“A mouse.”

Now she had the Duke’s full attention. “I’ll call for help.”

Barely hidden by the curtain, his back pressing against the wall, Ronnie mouthed a prayer.

“There,” said the Duchess. “At the window.”

A black cat sat full frame on the sill. Sleek, impassive. The moon behind it.

The Duke was on his feet. “Shoo, shoo,” he ordered. The cat rose, padded along the window ledge, ignored Ronnie behind the curtain, and disappeared.

Just centimetres from Ronnie, the Duke slammed the windows together, turning the key in the lock before heading back to bed.

“My hero.” Her voice had Katherine Hepburn’s throatiness. “Let me reward you.”

Ronnie closed his eyes. This is definitely the last time.

The act was over in minutes. Small Dukes, small mercies, thought Ronnie.

The Duke’s snores came in bursts. Her breathing was simply heavier.

Ronnie counted to 100 then pushed away the curtain. Please God, let the Duke’s pyjama bottoms be on. They were.

Reaching deep inside the safe, he found three slender jewellery cases. He pushed them aside and took out a document box. Its lid popped open at a touch. Ronnie’s hand moved inside his jacket. The stiff envelope was still there, zippered in place. Sliding the envelope under papers in the box, he closed the lid carefully and then pushed the box towards the rear of the safe.

On the window ledge, he judged the distance to the nearest conifer, braced himself and leapt.

As dawn picked out Antibes’ town walls, Ronnie walked to a café pressed against the side of a boulangerie. At a street table, a man in a hat lit a cigarette before offering one to Ronnie. They sat, watching the sky brighten.

“The Germans are coming,” said the man in the hat. "It's time to leave." He took a wad of francs from a leather satchel on his lap.

Ronnie counted the money. “Les Boches are a year or two away … and planting a fake letter from Hitler on the Duke won’t stop them.”

“No, but it will destroy his reputation. He’ll never take the throne again.”

Petty people. It was time to leave them to it. Ronnie wished the man in the hat bonne journée and didn’t look back.

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Copyright © 2014 GREG FLYNN