All Fur Coat
I’ve known Cooper for years. In one way or another he’s been in the background of my life since I was barely out of my teens – a shadow. Only, a small shadow, because he’s not a big guy. And I guess you could say that my relationship with him has changed over the years. Once upon a time I thought he was a funny little man with a floppy tongue which was too big for his mouth. One of God’s throwaway gags. Now, it comes to this: him holding court in the front room of his terraced house in Plaistow; me standing before him like a nervous courtier.
For the moment he’s ignoring me, more interested in his two council estate cronies, the pair of them installing a huge television set while he bleats moist-sounding orders from the safety of his perch. It’s a good-sized front room as front rooms go; still, it’s not quite big enough for three-and-a-half men and a telly as big as a car windscreen.
“No, not that shelf,” he barks at one of the cronies who straightens and gives me the benefit of a well-honed hard stare before looking testily at Cooper. “Put the DVD on the top shelf and the video on the bottom.”
Cooper’s command centre is a huge armchair, a recliner that lifts his little leggies off the floor so he can watch his new home entertainment set-up in perfect comfort.
“Mind out the way a minute, Greil,” he says. He pronounces my name the way I like, to rhyme with ‘real’. He has that much respect for me, at least. I take a step to my side. I wish he wasn’t getting the goons so riled up, I think, trying to project an aura of relaxed calm into the room. Which is difficult, and the heat doesn’t help. It’s early but the sun already has his hat on, and I can feel droplets of sweat tickling at my underarms. I feel hungover sick and adjust the waistband of my trousers with a thumb that comes away wet with perspiration and probably, if I was to sniff it, smelling slightly of dry-cleaning. I swallow dry and try to remember that I’m among friends here; that I’ve known Cooper for years, certainly for longer than his cronies – from a time before he even needed cronies, in fact – when together we were like a little starter pack to the music industry. Him, the bright-eyed and big-tongued club owner. Me, the guitarist with an equally bright-eyed band helping to put his venue on the map.
“Not seen you in the NME for a while, Greil,” he says. He means writing for it, not appearing in it. “You given that up altogether?”
“That’s right,” I say, just about my first words since entering the house. “Nationals now,” and I flap my suit jacket for extra emphasis, creating a breeze that disturbs the room’s fetid air: fag smoke, B.O, fried food.
“Course,” he remembers. “I’ve seen your name in one of the Sundays. You do them little album reviews.”
“And other things,” I say, ignoring the way his tongue seemed to shift over the word ‘little’. “Interviews. Theatre reviews and stuff.”
“Theatre reviews? Fuckin’ hell, an art critic. Do you get free tickets and that?”
His eyes gleam but I’m spared by one of the cronies who straightens from the back of the telly, says to Cooper, “We need a Scart lead, Craig.”
Craig Cooper. What a name. Picture poor Cooper’s parents, looking lovingly into their newborn’s cot – “Let’s call him Craig” – no doubt unaware that within his infant mouth lurked an outsize tongue; sentencing their offspring to a glottal future of working it around his own name.
“A what lead?” he says now.
“A Scart lead.”
He sighs. “Mind out the way a minute, Greil. Why do we need one of them? What’s wrong with the lead that came with it?” I move over more and feel the emptiness of my suit pockets, hoping this Scart lead business doesn’t turn nasty.
“The lead that came with it is an RGB connector,” says the first crony. He wears a white baseball cap that points in the general direction of the ceiling. This season’s look. He’s accessorising it with a gold earring, tracky bottoms and a Nike T-shirt available from JD Sports. Acne, model’s own.
“The RGB will be fine,” says the second one from the other side of the TV, glaring hazard warning lights at his mate. He’s bigger. Indistinct prison tats. Looks like he supports Arsenal, but you can’t be sure.
“No it won’t,” says the first.
“Yeah it will,” says the second.
“No it won’t,” says the first.
“Tenner says it will,” says the second, and I perk up at the smell of a wager in the air.
“It’ll work, yeah,” says the first, ignoring the bet. “but the signal won’t be digital. See, the DVD is a Digital Versatile Disc, but the RGB is an analogue connector. In order to preserve the integrity of the signal we need to use a digital connector, which is why we need a Scart lead.”
Cooper looks impressed. He looks to see if I’m equally impressed by his intellectually nubile cronies. In turn, I look impressed.
The second crony just looks exasperated. Maybe he’s having more trouble settling into his new role as part-time electrical installation engineer. “Yeah,” he insists. “But it won’t make any difference.”
“Yeah, it will,” says the first, and if they have a fight, which seems likely, my money’s on the second crony. Of course, I don’t actually have any money, which is why I’m praying they won’t have a fight.
“It’s not going to make any difference to him,” says the second, jerking his thumb at Cooper.
“Woah,” jumps in Cooper, “What am I, the cat’s muvver?” He addresses the second crony. “Will there be a difference or not?”
“Not so you’ll notice,” he replies, sulky.
“But there will be a difference,” says the first, the pair of them daggers across the top of the TV.
“That settles it, then,” says Cooper from his throne. “We need a Scart lead. Have we got one at the store?”
The store. The fabled store. Where things are kept. Where things happen. In my pockets, my fists clench.
“Don’t think so,” says crony one. “Pretty certain not.”
“Jesus,” says Cooper, his tongue coming out for air. “Then we’ll just have to buy one, won’t we? One of you’s going to have to go out and get it. Come on, hands up.”
Neither of them want to go and they end up tossing a coin, which flips through the volatile air to land in favour of the Scart lead supporter. He does a fine job of hiding his look of triumph.
“I’ll need some money,” says the RGB apologist, his jaw set. I sense trouble clearing its throat.
Cooper looks my way. “That’s all right. Greil’s got some money for us, haven’t you, Greil? We’ll take it out of that....”
* * *
Sonia Jewel sits at her desk in a carefully arranged job interview pose. She thinks she looks forbidding, like people should call her Ma’am in a BBC costume drama. But it’s an act, you can tell. Sonia’s one of those people who’s decided they’re a character. Chances are she used to be a model herself, before she started the agency, and now she sits in judgement on girls like me, calling us all ‘darling’, purring it poshly at us in between posh drags on a posh cigarette.
She regards me silently over the desk, which is supposed to give me the willies. So in return I do my bit, meeting her stare all sweetness and light, with just the right trace of nerves, which is what she’s looking for after all. I bite my lip a little. Model? I should get an Oscar just for this. Best performance of an awestruck wide-eyed innocent in a supporting role.
The wall behind her is tiled with what seems like hundreds of framed pictures: newspaper cuttings, dozens of Page Threes, spreads from glossy magazines, all with one thing in common – two things in common – boobs. All of them girls like me, who no doubt sat in this very seat, only wide-eyed for real, waiting for her to say, Sorry our books are full, or, Your hips are too wide, or, You’re too small, or whatever women like her tell the failures.
In front of her on the desk is my portfolio (“They’re good pictures, Heidi. Professional. Must have cost you a pretty penny.” Thanks, they did. Simper). She’s taken a good look. I’ve stood up for her, given her a twirl, felt her eyes assessing me and wondered if she’s a lesbian. And now she breaks the never-ending stare, convinced she’s got me quivering like a plate of birthday jelly, bless her, and snaps shut my portfolio. “Well…” she says, pausing the kind of pause you’d expect at the final of Pop Idol, “I think we can make a successful model out of you, Heidi.”
“That’s wonderful,” I say, breathlessly. “Thank you.” And I think the right thing to do in this instance is to close my eyes, so I do. And I find myself thinking of my ex, Mark, who spent the last three months of our relationship going, “Should you be eating that, what with you wanting to be a famous model an’ all?”, and the girls at school who always talked about being models, and one who even went so far as to do topless for a local photographer and then went strangely quiet, and the ones who entered Carnival Queen, or enrolled in classes, or went and did those soft-focus makeover pictures. Bitchy girls – all tattoos and single-parent families now. I think about them, and I’m giving them the finger.
When I open my eyes Sonia’s smiling at me, and for a second I forget that she’s a wizened old tit wrangler who’s spent the last twenty minutes shamelessly trying to manipulate my emotions, and instead I envy her job where she makes people’s dreams come true. I’ve got to admit, it feels good.
For the first time I notice that she has a bit of stuff, mayonnaise or something like that, stuck to the side of her mouth. Maybe now we’re friends I should tell her. Maybe not. “So,” she says, ‘You’re dancing at the moment are you? Which club?”
“All Fur Coat.”
“That’s good. Dancers tend to make good models. It helps if you’re comfortable with your body. Have you done any modelling at all?”
“No, not apart from the portfolio.”
“Never been in the papers? No kiss-and-tell?”
She looks at me doubtfully, as though I’m lying. “You must be the only dancer in the West End who hasn’t.”
“Not me.” I say. Then, “Should I, do you think? Does it help with the modelling?” I smile at her, like butter wouldn’t melt.
“It can, yes. I’ve got plenty of girls who have, and providing you don’t become known just for that, it can be useful for boosting your profile. What I would say is that if you’re tempted it helps to get a bit of modelling under your belt first. Bookers can be a bit sniffy if the only print work you’ve got to show them is Spurs Star Lifted My C-Cups. I’m guessing you’ll want to get started straight away, yes?”
I need to get a bit of modelling under my belt, so, “Yes. Yes please.”
“Then there’s good and bad news. The good news is that a lot of the girls are on holiday. The bad news is that they’re on holiday because work is a bit thin on the ground at the moment.”
“Oh,” I say.
“But don’t worry. There’s the odd exhibition coming up, and there’s always work for girls on the stands. Stand is about right. You’ll spend a lot of time handing out leaflets and looking pretty. Nothing too demanding, darling. Plus it’s very hot, so the papers will be looking for girls they can put in picture spreads. A shot of you cooling down beside the seaside, eating an ice lolly, things like that. I’ll put you forward if anything comes up, talk you up to the people I meet. Your picture will go on the website.”
She pauses to leaf through a large diary on the desk in front of her. “Tell you what,” she says at last, “I can’t guarantee anything, but there’s a job here I could put you forward for, casting soon. How’s about that?”
* * *
In Egypt lives a species of bird formally known as Pluvianus Aegyptius, more commonly referred to as the Egyptian Plover. A vagrant species, the bird feeds by picking food from the mouth of a gaping crocodile, which, whether hungry or not, will never eat the Plover, recognising the important function it plays. The alliance between the two – rare, but not unique in nature – is symbiotic. Their relationship is conducted on the banks of the river Nile.
On a poster in London, a man in a pin-striped suit stands behind a Goddess. The man is indistinct. He stands shrouded by shadows and smoke, nothing more than an impression, a sinister presence. The only part of his body not obscured is his hand, which rests on the shoulder of the Goddess sitting in front of him, lounging really. Dressed as a Thirties showgirl, she is a bright centre of colour and focus amid the gloom. Hers is a careless, capricious sexuality. Her legs are crossed – a glimpse of strappy shoes – and she holds a cigarette in a manner that appears confrontational, despite the long holder resting between two fingers.
On close scrutiny of the poster one can see tiny traces of lipstick tipping the end of the holder. Her lips are profondo rosso. Carmine red. Parted, moist and almost scornful. Her eyes, though. Her eyes betray the truth her body strives to hide. She wishes to appear hard but her eyes suggest a softness, a vulnerability. A pain. The pain of captivity, perhaps. Of dreams destroyed by powers beyond her control.
She wears little more than a slip, a showgirl’s dress decorated with beads around the neck. The outline of one nipple can be seen through the fabric. The other nipple should be correspondingly visible but it is obscured by something. It is covered by a piece of chewing gum.
I reach for it now, the gum. I reach and my fingers pinch it from the poster. It comes away trailing a thin rope, and I dab the gum back to collect it so that when I peer closely at the poster there is just the tiniest remnant left, almost invisible. She is perfect again. Tonight is her big night. She opens tonight. She needs to look her best. I flick the chewing gum to the pavement.
“Thank God. For one horrible moment there, I thought you were going to put that in your mouth.”
I turn – reluctantly, unwilling to be drawn away from her image – to see two men standing behind me. Both wear sunglasses. Something about one of them is familiar. He has his hands in his pockets, smart suit – a wealthy man’s suit – and he’s pushing his chest and stomach out like a man whose life is meeting his expectations. His companion is standing slightly back and looking hot. He has his arms folded across his chest. An assistant. Or a bodyguard. A person paid to stand back and bear the temperature.
The rich man moves his sunglasses onto his head, which is odd because even though he’s not old, he’s too old for this to be an acceptable thing to do with his sunglasses. Beneath his shades he has a rich man’s tan that nevertheless fails to penetrate his crow’s feet, like cracks in a dried puddle. He laughs:
“You’ve saved the cleaners a job, anyway. Nice one. I’d shake your hand, but…” I look at my hand where I see the gum hasn’t flicked to the pavement as I’d intended. It clings to the end of my finger still, like a wart. “Tell you what, we’ll leave the handshaking, eh?” He seems amused. He glows beneath the sun. “What’s your name?”
“Simon.” He pats one hand to his jacket. “Are you homeless, Simon?”
“No,” I say. “I’m an artist,” and I find I’m pleased he’s made this mistake, pleased he’s caught me off guard, in a reverie. An artistic reverie. His suit and easy manner tell me all I need to know about him; in return, I’m an enigma.
Still, his faux pas amuses him, his puddle cracks close up. “Then it all makes sense,” he says. “You’re an artist. You appreciate beautiful things. And she,” he points at the poster over my shoulder. “She is bee-yoo-tee-full.” I flick my finger but the wart clings on. “What’s your line of work then, Simon?”
“I just said. I’m an artist.” I can never quite omit the damning note of pride in my voice when I say this, and it seems to produce another smile in him now.
“Yeah, but what do you do, art-wise? You draw? You sculpt? Bricks, cut-up cows and that? What?”
I ignore him.
“Just pulling your lariat, mate. What sort of stuff do you paint?”
I think of the Goddess on the poster behind me, my daily pilgrimages to gaze at her image. Her, I think suddenly, the idea seeming to fill my skull with sunshine. I paint her.
But to him I say, “All sorts.”
“You paint liquorice?”
I ignore him.
“S’all right, mate, don’t mind me. And this all-sorts painting, does it pay the rent? You’ll pardon me I’m sure, if I say that your artistic status notwithstanding, you don’t look that prosperous.”
“I do all right,” I lie.
The rich man smiles up at the sun, which smiles back. He indicates the poster. “She’s a work of art, isn’t she, Simon? You know her name?”
Her name is not on the poster, which simply advertises the show’s title, Moll, the venue, dates and booking details. But elsewhere, at the front of the theatre, is a separate notice displaying cast information, and from here I learned her name – Emily. Emily Benstead – and that Moll is her debut West End show.
“She’s my wife,” he says (his wife, I think), “And this,” he spreads his arms to embrace the theatre before him, “is my show. You see, Si, we’re both artists after a fashion. We both appreciate beauty, ain’t that right?”
“Yes,” I say.
“Mr B, we’re going to be late,” says the other man.
“Yeah, yeah. Wait up. I’ve got something I want to ask Simon.”
I flick the wart, which remains on my finger. Mr Benstead drapes a hand across my shoulder. He towers over me. I feel the cotton of his suit against my cheek.
“Simon, mate,” he says. “How would you like to get paid for doing something you’ve just done for free?”
“I’m sorry?” I say, concentrating on keeping my wart away from his suit.
“I’m saying, you see this poster, it’s everywhere, mate. Blanket promotion all over town, and it’s not cheap. It is not cheap, mate. You use the tube at all?”
“Then you might not have seen it, but it’s all over. Those little framed adverts up and down the escalators, you know the ones I mean?”
“Yes.” I do know the ones he means. About A3 – perhaps a bastard size. I’m suddenly electrified by the thought of this poster’s identical twin existing all over the underground system, just below my feet. Emily everywhere.
“I used to be a footballer, Si, did you know?” He says, hooking me out of my daydream.
“I thought I recognised you.” I reply truthfully, because I have seen him. On television, giving his opinion after football matches; in old newspaper photographs, kissing his shirt after a goal, beaming team-mates hanging off him like Siamese twins.
“Yeah, maybe from the papers. I’d guess you’re too young to remember my playing days. I tell you one thing I’ve never forgotten from those days though, mate. Psychology. And now I’m thinking how that psychology applies to my show, because I tell you what, if I was a punter, and I saw one of my posters and it had stuff on it like that, I’d think, whether I wanted to or not – because it’s all psychology – I’d think, ‘There’s something up with that show. It’s a bit tatty’. You know what I mean, Si?”
“So what about this? In honour of the opening night tonight, I give you a hundred quid to spend the day buzzing round the tube stations in Central London. Not everywhere – you’ve no need to go to bleedin’ Neasden – just the ones in town, where the tourists gather, you know? Go round and make sure all those posters are doing their job, right? You make sure that nothing obscures that work of art right there. You become her protector…”
“Mr B?” From behind us comes the questioning voice of his assistant.
“Don’t worry,” says Mr Benstead. “Simon’s a trustworthy lad, aren’t you, Si? And anyway, we’ll be checking a couple of stations later, random ones.” He thinks I don’t see him wink at his assistant. “We’ll check this afternoon, and later – no, not later, we’re busy later – okay, tomorrow, if that’s all right by you, Si, Simon can pick up his money. What about that, mate? You doing anything today? Easiest hundred quid you ever earned. What about it?”
(“You become her protector”) “Yes, I say. Yes, I’ll do it.” And Mr Benstead slaps me on the back, sending me stumbling forward, which I combine with a flick to finally rid myself of the wart.
“Excellent,” he barks. “Give him the Liaisons card,” he says to his assistant, then to me, “If you come to that address tomorrow, you can pick up the hundred, which I’ll give you with my thanks. Sound all right?”
He pulls his sunglasses from his head and replaces them on his face, goes to shake my hand but thinks better of it. “Then let’s not delay,” he adds. “Big day ahead. I’ll see you tomorrow, Si. Good luck, eh? Oh, and ask at the box office inside. Tell them I said to give you a spare poster. Souvenir of your day.” And he bounds up the short steps to the theatre door, leaving me with the assistant who gives me a long, appraising look before handing me a card bearing the name of a nightclub, Liaisons.
“Just ring the doorbell,” says the assistant, and he, too, is gone.
I stare at the card a moment, take my rucksack from my shoulder, open my notebook and place the card inside.
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