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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Don Stoll—Swallow

89_ym_swallow_kduncan.jpg
Art by Kevin Duncan © 2021

Swallow

by Don Stoll

 

     Sometimes I wonder about becoming a copper. Seemed clever when I signed on. Tossing bad chaps in the nick’s got to be a good thing, right? But the line between good and bad’s not always drawn where it should be.

     Instead of becoming a copper could have bought an electric guitar and banged away with somebody like the Ramones. Bang on a guitar, bang my head. Bang you any way you like. Bang you some ways you’re afraid to ask for, luv.

     Reminded of all that by finding the Ramones on the jukebox: “Swallow My Pride.”

     And reminded of how often being a copper forces me to swallow my pride. Yeah, I don’t bang black heads together like a proper copper. But just being a copper makes me part of the problem. 

     But I was out with Sylvain, wanting a good time. I asked him for 10p.

     It started up and I said, “Dance with me?”

     “I’ll spill my pint, Ellen,” he said.

     “Sod your pint,” I said. “Get to sod something else back at your flat anyway.”

     He started dancing. Dreadful. I started laughing.

     “Thought your lot were natural dancers,” I said.

     Other customers kept quiet. Didn’t like seeing us together.  

     Pub got busy and we lost our dance floor. Half-seven up on an elevated stage, a young chap began strumming a guitar and warbling: Elton John, Neil Young, Don McLean. Puppy-dog eyes.

     “Can’t play the jukebox over him?” I said. “Bit soft.”

     “Wouldn’t hurt you to be soft,” Sylvain said.

     “I’ll be soft when you get hard. But he’s pretty.”

     I stroked Sylvain’s head.  

     “Your surgery ever involve hair?” I said. “Guitar chap’s mop would suit you.” 

     He laughed. Sweetest Labrador Retriever you had growing up would laugh like Sylvain, if dogs could laugh. His laugh makes me cry.

     Don McLean the last straw.

     “Vincent, this world was never meant for one as beautiful as you?” I said. “Let’s hoof it.”

     Halfway back to Sylvain’s flat we were moving free and easy—we’d had too much—so I never noticed the GRAND OPENING sign sticking out over the pavement from the front of a florist’s shop. Hung from an iron bar bolted to the shop wall, sticking out two feet over the pavement at head level for a tallish lass like myself. Wouldn’t have needed someone pissed-up and besotted with love to collide with the bugger.  

     Dragging myself off the pavement I was thinking to have a chat with the florist bloke next morning when I saw a copper strongarming Sylvain. London’s Finest, indeed. Copper like that’s a greater danger to public safety than some fairy florist who’s got careless with his GRAND OPENING sign.

     I marched up to the young Constable.

     “Saw this dark chap knock you down, mu’um.”

     “Dark chap’s Doctor Sylvain de León,” I said. “Famous cosmetic surgeon.”

     Twat sees my badge is out: Detective Inspector Ellen Flay. Twat unhands Sylvain. Sylvain backs away. Hadn’t resisted the strongarm. Prudent choice for a chap of his persuasion.     

     “Florist’s sign knocked me down, Constable. Doctor de León is my lover and his black gorilla paws will soon be all over me in his flat.”

     “Ellen. . .” Sylvain said.

     “I need your name, Constable,” I said. “Want to charge police harassment, Doctor?”

     I added, “But not worth the time that could be spent getting to his flat pronto to get those gorilla paws on me.”

     Going too far’s my M.O.  

     “Charges would be better than what the doctor’s tribe will do if they hear about this,” I said. “Jungles of Côte d'Ivoire. Notorious for witchcraft.”

     I couldn’t tell if he believed my witchcraft rubbish. Wanker finally spoke.

     “You’re bleeding, mu’um,” he said in a mouse’s voice all meek and mild.

     I touched where the sign had struck. Hand came away red.

     Sylvain had been behind me. He steps forward.

     “My God, Ellen!” he says. 

     I sucked and licked the blood off my hand.    

     “I’ll drink your blood too,” I told the Constable. 

     With my head I let him know to piss off. 

     “Let’s get back to the flat and take care of you,” Sylvain said.

     He spoke soothingly. Best bedside manner. Love his manner inside the bed too. 

     “Days are numbered for his sort, Ellen.”

     I thought, don’t see racists going extinct anytime soon.

#

     Morning, I was up first. His great dark carcass in bed like a seal washed up on the beach.

     His flat in Twickenham a good haul from the Brixton station. Sausage rolls scarfed during the drive left a spot of grease on my overcoat.

     At the station, more grease: Dickie Woodford hanging about my desk all winks and snickers.

     “Admirer’s left you a gift, Ellen.”

     Wrapped up like a mummy it was. Shape left no room for guesswork, though.

     Something for the hard times,” the twat titters.

     But not so overcome by his own wit that he can’t speak more.

     “Might not measure up to the one hanging off your African doctor, Ellen.”   

     Marvelous, I thought. If Dickie knows about Sylvain then so does everyone else. We’d tried to lie low, but London’s smaller than you think.

     “You a spit girl or a swallow girl?” Dickie rattles on. “Or your African doctor decide?”

     Perfect time for Chief Inspector Redmond to pass by demanding all hands on deck. I can put Dickie out of mind.   

     My moment came early.

     Darkies on the warpath,” Redmond began.

     Bloody hell, I thought. But what hill you want to die on? I shut my eyes.

     “That showing at the local Odeon?” a voice said.

     “Sequel to Zulu,” another said. “Also ends bad for the chaps with spears.”

     Neither voice Dickie’s. One oily fish in an oily sea.    

     “But don’t have Michael Caine,” Redmond said. “Only D.I. Flay. Whom I’m boring.”   

     My eyes open, he continued.

     “A certain Viv Lloyd and his mate, Lester Richardson, are rousing the rabble.”

     “Blokes that put out that Marxist broadsheet?” I said. “Within their rights, sir.”

     “Let’s help them stay within their rights, Flay,” Redmond said smiling, if smile’s the right word. “Latest edition suggests they may soon exceed them.”       

     He lifted a sheet of newsprint off the lectern. Fished glasses from his breast pocket.

     The entrenched racism of the Metropolitan Police Service has been protected and even strengthened by David McNee’s leadership,” he read. “Even before Mr. McNee affirmed the right of his officers to murder citizens whom one might have thought the police should serve and protect—but then, Alvin Greenfield was a ‘seedy degenerate scarcely worth the dust on the bottoms of my men’s shoes,’ in Mr. McNee’s telling—the MPS had won notoriety for its shift toward jackbooted paramilitary techniques in the suppression of civil liberties.”

     Redmond removed his glasses. Gave him beady bat’s eyes. With that executioner’s smile, took away all the pleasure of looking at what might have been rather a dishy bloke.   

     “Commissioner McNee discerns an increasing shrillness of tone, Flay, so it’s irrelevant that they’re within their rights and that no crime’s yet been committed.”

     “Just as not committing a crime may have been irrelevant in the case of Alvin Greenfield.”

     My M.O. again. Wanted to bite my tongue. But teeth couldn’t catch up when it was already out there wagging.

     “Public drunkenness, resisting arrest, assaulting a police officer,” Redmond said metallically.

     “Speaking hypothetically, sir. I meant, irrelevant if you believe the outrageous accusations against our officers.”    

     My professional suicide wouldn’t bring Alvin Greenfield back.

     “No crime’s been committed,” Redmond continued, “and our courtesy to Mr. Lloyd and Mr. Richardson will be to make sure they maintain their spotless records. A courtesy you’re to extend, Flay. The spirit of courtesy being best embodied by a member of the fair sex.”

     Surveying the room he said, “By our Desdemona.”

     Confirmed: Dickie knew, Redmond knew, everyone knew.

     But not a chuckle heard. Redmond thought those mouth-breathers would know Shakespeare?     

#

     Viv Lloyd and Lester Richardson had emigrated from Barbados. Their restaurant on Lampard Road supported the Manifesto’s publication and distribution. The restaurant didn’t have a sign, so locals called it “Viv and Lester’s.” I’d eaten there. Lads cared about politics more than food.

     I claimed a table without waiting to be seated. From a magazine rack by the door I’d picked up a copy of the Manifesto that accused the Commissioner of resorting to “jackbooted paramilitary techniques.” I told a very dark, very pretty girl that I wanted a lime squash and to talk to whoever wrote the rubbish about Commissioner McNee. I pointed to the front-page headline next to McNee’s picture: WE KILL SEEDY DEGNERATES. The girl asked who I was and I said. She made a face like I’d shown her what the cat had killed.                             

     A slender handsome chap and a short round one, ages unclear because the sun doesn’t beat up their skin. Even in the Caribbean, where it shines all the time.

     “Sit with me?” I said. “Have a chat?”

     “We’ll stand,” scowled the handsome one.

     Viv Lloyd. Touch of Harry Belafonte. Under different circumstances, I thought. . .   

     “I’ve come with friendly advice,” I said. 

     “Friendly?” the short round chap said in a mocking voice.

     Lester Richardson.          

     The pretty girl brought my lime squash.  

     “Don’t forget to add the copper’s fifty-percent surcharge,” Richardson told her.          

     Entrenched racism among the Metropolitan Police, you wrote?” I said. “Course there is. Not defending it, but your Manifesto won’t make it go away. And you keep on, it’ll destroy you.”    

     “Why would it be in your interest to defend racism?” Richardson said, mocking me again.

     Was I supposed to say I’d spent the night shagging my rich African doctor in his posh flat in Twickenham so they’d understand that I was a friend of the blacks?

     I tasted my drink. Puckered up. Thirty years—or twenty—that’s my face full-time.  

     “Think about your own interest, not mine,” I said.

     But how was repeating my point in a louder voice going to help?           

     Wouldn’t hurt me to be soft, Sylvain had said. I made my voice gentle.

     “Not like I can’t see the point of violence against the government,” I said. “When there’s a chance of winning. If there’s no chance, it’s about your pride. And got to swallow your pride when the only chance is losing.”  

     “Not like she can’t see the point of violence against the government,” Lloyd said. “A revolutionary among the Metropolitan Police. That’s a giggle.” 

     Anything I said would make it worse. Best to piss off, I thought. Did so after telling the pretty girl she might want to go easier on the lime.

#

     “Building trust are you, Flay?” Redmond wanted to know.

     “Trying, sir.” 

     “Not to worry. You have a natural bond.”

     Meaning Sylvain. All blacks the same to Redmond, so I’m Desdemona to Lloyd and Richardson too.

     “Plus they seem like slow-boil lads, Flay: brainy sorts. So you’ve got time.”

     Rubbish, I thought. Also thought how stupid I’d been to mention pride, make sure that was foremost in their minds. “Swallow your pride,” I had said. You daft, girl?    

#

     My failure had got me down. I said to Sylvain let’s go out for a drink.

     “Place last night was all right,” he said.

     “Same young chap’s there. Was written on a chalk board by the door.”           

     “Stevie something. Williams. I’m all right with that. And you said he was pretty.” 

     “Like Jane Birkin,” I said. “But can’t bear him singing his Vincent song again.”

     “‘This world was never meant for one as beautiful as you.’ That eats at you. But it only says the world is cruel. I’d think you as much as anyone would agree.”

     “Doesn’t only say that. World’s cruel, yeah. But don’t glorify weakness, call it beautiful.”  

     Sylvain sighed. He pushed away from the table. 

     “Should lay off the potatoes if I want room for a couple of pints,” he said.

     Horse had left the barn if he was going to lay off the potatoes.        

     “Glorify weakness, you flash a green light to cruelty,” I said. 

     He crossed his arms.

     “You can’t just hear a sweet tune and a pretty voice, Ellen? Pretty voice, pretty lad?”

     I crossed my arms back.

     “I’m fine going to see pretty Stevie Williams sing,” I said.

     I paused. Striving for what’s called comic timing.

     “Long as I get to shag him.”

     He laughed his Labrador Retriever laugh. Then he went serious.

     “But you’d rather listen to your Ramones than pretty Stevie Williams. Let’s stay in.”

     He put on his unsexy-bloke-acting-sexy voice. I love that voice. Not as much as his laugh.  

     “‘Swallow My Pride,’ indeed,” he said. “We’ll soon have you swallowing something else.” 

     I thought of Dickie Woodford.                                 

#

     Wasn’t long before Redmond had his hands full with protests of the exoneration of the officers who’d killed Alvin Greenfield. 

     “Hoi polloi are on high boil,” he said. “So you can lay off your slow-boil lads for a bit, Flay.”  

     He needed me for the excitable ones: put me to work with the other D.I.’s, bringing in blokes who’d smashed shop windows or cars. Difference was, no busting heads of the black chaps I brought in. Bloody hero to the blacks, I was. Their best mate.     

#

     A week later, with the excitable lads gone off the boil, Lloyd and Richardson seized the Brixton police sub-station on Ashcombe Mews.

     Redmond had always kept the sub-station lightly staffed. And since the start of the protests, staff not needed for basic operations had been sent to the hot spots. Lloyd and Richardson took notice. First thing one morning, without firing a shot or striking a blow, they surprised the two officers on duty. Locked them in a holding cell and rang the office of Commissioner McNee. McNee rang the Brixton station and like a good boy Redmond cut short his morning briefing.

     When he came back, he announced that he and I would lead the recapture of the sub-station. I was to choose ten officers to accompany us.

     I said, “There’s blokes specially trained for this, sir.”

     “Would raise the profile,” he said. “Told the Commissioner they wanted to prove a point. McNee’s made no bones about the power of the Metropolitan Police to crush any protest that crosses the line. Point of taking the sub-station’s to prove our power’s overrated.”

     He saw I wasn’t following.     

     “But we downplay this, Flay, let them think they’ve proved something, we can get them to lay down their arms, end this without violence. Back-pages item, soon forgotten.”

     Redmond pursed his lips.

     “Contingent on our establishing trust. So I want you to have the first word, Flay.

     I’ve done such a brilliant job of establishing trust already, I thought.

     “No violence? Seems that’s what they want, harming no one in the takeover.”

     “That’s the goal,” he said. “But we still need ten good men if this plan goes south.”

     It seemed dodgy, but I’d been given a job. I looked for blokes that I couldn’t recall having expressed racism overtly. Not born yesterday, so I know that still waters run deep. But would you have had me bring along chaps who go about in white sheets?

#

     The Ashcombe Mews sub-station occupied the remains of the old stables, carriage houses, and living quarters that had given their name to the little street. Officers, citizens making complaints, and other visitors could park in the converted stables and carriage houses. The former living quarters, one floor up, were for business.  

     Redmond and I studied the scene.

     “Dangerous for you to stand naked in front of them,” Redmond said. “So to speak.”

     His mind can go to that even now, I thought.

     “Though you won’t be naked in the full sense,” he continued. “They point a gun at you, they’re finished.”  

     He checked his watch.

     “Seven minutes to the hour. Which is when I’ve told them to look for your pretty face making advances toward them.”

#

     I crossed the street right on the hour. Stopped short of the sidewalk in front of the station.

     “Lloyd,” I shouted, “Richardson,” and then: “Viv! Lester!”

     Desperate to hear a word back, yet no clue what my own next word would be.   

     “Fuck me,” I said under my breath.

     A flicker of movement on the right of the broad window above me.

     I heard a shot from behind, far to my left. There was no more movement on the right, but the shattered window gave a clear view of Viv on the left, firing a rifle over my head. I heard more shots and watched him fall.

     Silence and stillness.                   

     “Lloyd! Richardson!” I repeated. “Viv! Lester!”         

     More silence and stillness. 

     Finally, Redmond’s voice.                                      

     “They were going to shoot you, Flay.”

     I spun around.

     “Bollocks. Who saw a gun pointed at me? Who started shooting?”

     I raised an arm toward my face. But I thought twice and froze it halfway.

     “Who started shooting?” I said.

     I dropped my arm. They’d know about my tears if I brushed them away.  

     “Was all about setting me up, wasn’t it? Could have killed them without involving me, but so much sweeter with me.”  

     Sweet to see Desdemona weep, I thought.

     But I kept my tears to myself as they streamed down. I was far away from the lot of them.

     “You’re all cowards,” I said.

     A voice from my right.

     “What?” I said.

     Same voice: “I’m Spartacus.”

     Dickie Woodford. But meant nothing. Same obscenity came from a voice to my left. Then many voices.

     The shouts of “I’m Spartacus” were loud. The laughter was louder.

     “Swallow your pride,” I’d told Viv and Lester. No chance. Weren’t buying.

     But what about Ellen? Too late to learn the electric guitar. This was the life I’d chosen for better or worse. Finishing up at the scene, then back to the station—had to swallow my pride.                  

END

Don Stoll has written about Ellen Flay, the protagonist of "Swallow," in 15 other stories published here in Yellow Mama and elsewhere, including Pulp ModernDown and OutPunk Noir, and the new noir anthology from Uncle B. Publications, Now, There Was a Story!  


Kevin D. Duncan was born 1958 in Alton, Illinois where he still resides. He has degrees in Political Science, Classics, and Art & Design. He has been freelancing illustration and cartoons for over 25 years. He has done editorial cartoons and editorial illustration for local and regional newspapers, including the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. His award-winning work has appeared in numerous small press zines, e-zines, and he has illustrated a few books. 



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