Deadbeat by Guy Adams


Full Title: 
Deadbeat - Makes You Stronger
Release Date: 
Tuesday, June 11, 2013
# of Pages: 




Finley Peter Dunne, the American writer and humorist, was a fiercely wise chap. “Alcohol,” he said, “is necessary for a man so that he can have a good opinion of himself, undisturbed by the facts.” When the clock drags its heels towards the early hours of morning it’s a thought that often rolls around my head. Sat there on one of the barstools watching the last soldiers fall from the assault of grape and grain, limping wounded onto the no-man’s-land of Soho for a taxi to take them home, I wonder on the truth of his words. Do I drink to bolster low self-esteem? Do I drink to wear down the edges of memory? Is it a crutch that maintains my ability to walk through this life with some degree of efficacy?

The thoughts haunt me, so much so that I pound the hell out of them with a few stiff measures of brandy. Nobody needs that sort of depressing nonsense in their brain when they’re trying to have a good night. Takes all the fun out of it.

That night it wasn’t an issue. I had more than enough to occupy the scant few grey cells I had mercifully spared from the booze. It had been some considerable time since anything had provided so much as a buzz of mental interest. Life can become interminably dull if you allow it.

Max, as per usual, passed out across the table we’d been sitting at and I had the boys bundle him home. There will come a time when I will have to insist that he move in upstairs, if only to save petrol.

Watching the hustle and bustle of the staff clearing down, sweeping up and generally turning the club back to its previous state, as if it were a crime scene that we wished to disguise, I decided to shut myself in my office and leave them to it. I’m hopeless with a dustpan and I’d only get in the way. Besides, the office is where I keep most of my record collection and the speakers are wired up perfectly. It is the best place to lose myself in music that I know. I have been assured by Len that it would also be an ideal place for any clerical work involving the club, accounts and general paperwork, but I’ve seen no reason to prove that as yet. In my mind, offices lose some of their charm if you start working in them.

I slipped Oliver Nelson’s Swiss Suite onto the turntable and turned the volume up enough to dissuade anyone from knocking on the door and interfering with my mood. Thus assured of not losing my reputation by being observed, I brewed a cafetière of strong coffee and turned my little laptop on.

People assume I can’t operate a computer. I must have a Luddite air to me. It’s true enough that they baffle me frequently and many’s the time when I have had an extremely strong urge to hurl the thing across the room. But that’s technology for you, you take the rough with the smooth. I wouldn’t be without it and – keep it under your hat – I actually write a couple of music blogs (one on classical and one on jazz) under a pseudonym. It pays very little but then I don’t do it for the money, it’s just fun to waffle about one’s passions…

I checked my emails – offers of penis enlargement and cash-rich Nigerians for the most part; my correspondence is never less than scintillating – and then wandered aimlessly online while sipping my coffee. After a ten-minute stroll through the sites I usually frequent, by way of asserting to myself that what I was hunting for was most probably nothing of interest and therefore not worth rushing over, I tapped “Lloyd & Bryson Undertakers” into a search engine and glanced at the page of results. It assured me that the “and” had been unnecessary as it searched all phrases by default, which was all well and good if it could have shown me the fruit of such confidence by way of a useful link. As it was, there were a list of funeral homes in America, none of which could be of the slightest relevance.

I couldn’t help but think that I was letting the spirit of Philip Marlowe down.

Bringing up the phone directory page, I managed to pin the office of the undertakers to an address in Kentish Town. Not far from the church then. That was something – at least we now knew where it was.

I made a new search: Kentish Town undertakers… plenty of those – they’re dropping like flies in Camden. I hit upon a link to a message board where posters were sharing their grief in the cosy anonymity of the Internet. One woman’s message contained a list of agonies regarding her husband, who had clearly been struck fatally ill and had gone from fit as a fiddle to dead and buried within a matter of weeks. She made a reference to an undertaker that had been recommended to her via the health insurance company she had a policy with, but it could have been anyone. She had nothing but praise for them and made no reference to Transit vans or midnight flits.

This really was getting us nowhere.

To hell with the Internet, we needed to expend shoe leather.

I dialled Max’s number and left a message on his answer machine telling him to meet me at the church in the morning. I suggested a not-so-distant time that I knew he would deeply disapprove of. I also knew that the persistent beeping of his machine would ensure he woke up to meet the appointment. His answer machine takes no prisoners – I know, I bought it for him.

Poor Max, so easily led…

I should tell the story of how we first met, if only because I know it would irritate him hugely.

Max often tells people that he and I worked together in theatre, which is not entirely true. Well… it’s not true at all, actually, but I know why he says it. Certainly we both have a history as far as the stage is concerned, and that shared background added to the ease with which we hit it off and grew close. I was a child in Stratford-upon-Avon; I grew up on Shakespeare and sonnets (as well as Hemingway and pulp war novels – my literary upbringing was a field of highs and lows). I was there in the sixties when Peter Hall kicked The Bard up the arse and gave the Royal Shakespeare Company the birth it needed. Shakespeare was as cool as Miles Davis, and they were my poster idols as I surfed adolescence. I worked as a writer and director in theatre for many years, in between more lucrative employment. Max has the handicap of being younger than me, but nonetheless found himself on a similar path: a trained actor hacking out a living in profit-share theatre, the sort of shows that have larger casts than audience, occasionally paying for food with the odd appearance on television.

By the time we crossed paths it was a lifestyle that had pretty much been squeezed out of both of us. I had recently bought the club and Max… Well, Max had been drifting.

He wasn’t always the well-adjusted gentleman you see today (yes, I’m being sarcastic). When I first clapped eyes on him he was a ragged and weary young man. He had all the confidence of a whipped dog, carrying himself as if he expected to be jumped upon and beaten at any moment. Nervous then, yes, but it was more than that. His awkwardness and perpetually twitching sense of imminent danger was not a temporary fixture, this was how he was. A man scared to exist in his own skin.

I was attending a fringe show in the dingy top room of a pub in Camden, all black painted walls and the fug of tobacco and old beer. I knew one of the cast, and out of a misguided sense of loyalty I had decided to turn up and show a little support.

After an hour or so of watching Romeo and Juliet restaged as a lesbian love tryst (with the nurse a jaded transsexual replete in goatee and Laura Ashley) I was losing the will to live, and determined to bail out of this creative death-pit the moment the lights went up for the interval. I spotted Max in the row just in front of mine. Like me he was loitering in the back seats, keeping his head down (in my case I had no wish to announce myself, even less now it was clear that I would be incapable of surviving the whole performance). His hair was a good deal longer than he favours these days, curly and spiked in a manner that suggested lack of treatment rather than the swirling fringe sculptures that seem popular today. He was wearing a long overcoat that he tugged around himself like a blanket, as if desperate to lose himself in one of its pockets. His attention to the stage was minimal. He glanced at it now and then in a rather dutiful manner but he wasn’t even giving it enough attention to loathe it. It was something that just happened to be going on in the same room. He spent more time looking around, ignoring the mangled verse and histrionics in favour of analysing the chipped plaster walls and the frayed set dressing. He was a man gripped by discomfort. There were a few momentary exceptions whenever one of the female cast entered. Then, and only then, his attention was total. I assumed he was there out of a sense of duty, much like me. That aside, his discomfort was so pronounced I couldn’t help but watch him closely.

When the interval finally raised its slovenly head and the house lights revealed the small gathering of bewildered audience – friends and mothers all, no doubt – I found myself following him down the stairs into the bar. I was intrigued by him and wanted to know more.

Rather than take a place at the bar as most of the audience did (hoping to drink enough to make the second half tolerable), he walked straight out onto the street. I did the same and put a little spurt on so as to draw level with him.

“Two theatre lovers, alike in dignity,” I said, mangling poor old Bill Shakespeare no more than the actors had. “I take it you hated it as much as me?”

He flinched, that sense of unease and fearfulness given full rein for just a moment before he snapped it back down and smiled. “I heard Shakespeare screaming in agony five minutes in.”

“Apparently they try and up the ante in the second half with a naked love scene. The papers were full of it.”

“Romeo could fire ping-pong balls into the crowd with all the skill of a Bangkok stripper and it still wouldn’t stop me from falling asleep.”

He didn’t stop walking – that would have meant embracing the conversation, which he was clearly still unwilling to do – but he was polite enough to slow down a little so that walking and talking were easier.

“I know one of the cast,” I said, eager to keep the conversation moving, “otherwise I wouldn’t have bothered chancing it.”

“Not one of the leads?” he asked.

“No, thank God, I wouldn’t have admitted it if I did. The nurse.”

He laughed. “He looks cracking in a frock.”

“Yes, one of the prouder lines on his CV I’m sure.” I had hoped he was going to admit knowing the woman he had been so drawn to. No such luck. Perhaps he needed lubricating. “Fancy a drink?”

I nodded towards a pub across the road. That worried look returned to his face; no doubt he thought I was trying to pull him, arrogant bugger. He need hardly have worried on that score.

“Er… no, thanks though, I need to be getting home really.”

He started walking a little quicker and I realised I needed to play dirty in order to keep him from vanishing. The thing is, I had a hunch what it was about him that had drawn my attention – beyond his bizarre mannerisms – and the only way I could think of to stop him was to trust my instincts and use it. There was something else the two of us shared beyond an appreciation of what made truly awful theatre and, if I was right, the realisation that it was a mutual affliction would be enough for him to stop for a second and hear me out.

Now, this is tricky. You see, there is indeed something unusual about Max, and I was right when I thought I sensed it in him on that first meeting. Still, it is hardly my place to announce it. You’ll just have to trust me when I say that there is a reason he drew my eye and that it would be of benefit to both of us to sit down over some finely chilled alcohol and discuss it. You will have to accept that, for now at least, you do not need to know what that is.

It’s enough to say that my gut instincts about him had been right and, after a panicked moment when I thought he might run anyway – so concerned was he that he had been so easily discovered – he relaxed and we headed over the road for a drink.

Secrets. My entire life is complicated by secrets.

We talked about lots of things. He told me about his theatrical past. He also admitted he’d been there to watch the young woman forced into Mercutio’s doublet and hose. I got the impression their relationship had been a little more than just having worked together, but he refused to be drawn on the details. What was clear was that he had no intention of being seen by her and would have done a runner in the interval whether the play had been good or not.

He talked about his background in Yorkshire, his childhood, how he had come to be in London… He talked about everything. It is always the way with someone so tensed up, someone who has become so nervously clenched as to be almost physically deformed by it: when they are given the chance to unwind they do so with such violence that one is advised to just sit back and allow it, adding more alcohol and the odd supportive nod or grunt as and when it seems required. We got heroically drunk. Drunk enough in fact that we decided the only way forward, after groaning at the depressive death-knell of the bell behind the bar, was to make our way to the club and drink some more.

I am only too aware, thinking back on the two of us stumbling through the streets, how the template was set for so many of our nights to come. We are creatures of habit, Max and I, and that was the night that formed it all.

Back at the club, I marvelled at how the terrified young man I had first spotted hours earlier had become transformed into this whirling dervish, dancing on his own to the sound of Dixieland. Fists raised in the air and face grimly set into a frown of deep concentration as he moved like Cab Calloway.

It goes without saying that Len had his reservations. It is an awkward conflict of interests for a bar manager when the one individual that could be defined as worthy of removal is there at the owner’s invitation, and therefore above the law.

“That bastard’s making eyes at me!” Max shouted at one point (though the band were between tunes and he didn’t need to raise his voice to be heard).

“Len is a man of infinite intolerance,” I assured him, “don’t let it bother you.”

Max grinned, necked the gin and tonic he had been working on and spiralled back onto the dance floor as the band picked up again. He came to a halt in the centre of the room – regressed to the showy little performer he had been so many years ago, before financial failure and perpetual joblessness had started to knock it out of him – held up his hands and prepared to make a speech. Before he could so much as utter a syllable though, his face drooped on its bones and a look of absolute confusion poured itself into his eyes. He spun around and, in an act of pure abandon that makes him cringe heartily whenever I mention it – which, of course, means I mention it frequently – he threw up into the bell of the bass saxophone behind him. The mortified saxophonist – a pale and timid man who had been muscling up to lead into “Sweet Georgia Brown” – gave a roar of disgust and dropped the slopping horn. Max caught it, face still pressed against the brass rim of its bell, and fell back on the floor. He sat, legs splayed, saxophone hugged to his belly as the now-silent club fixed its attention on him.

That’s how I first met Max Jackson.

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Max and Tom are old, old friends, once actors. Tom now owns a jazz nightclub called Deadbeat which, as well as being their source of income, is also something of an in-joke. In a dark suburban churchyard one night they see a group of men are loading a coffin into the back of a van.

But, why would you be taking a full coffin away from a graveyard and, more importantly, why is the occupant still breathing? Tom and Max are on the case. God help us...