It’s late afternoon, an overcast day in a South London cemetery. Stone memorials stretch into the distance – a few pristine, garlanded with fresh flowers, most neglected and crumbling, their etched assurances of eternal life forlorn and fading.
One of the gravelled aisles is blocked by a gaggle of expensive cars – Mercs, Jags, a Bentley – as well as several undertakers’ limos. The cars’ drivers, bulky men in suits and shades, lean back against their vehicles, grim-faced, watchful. A couple of them surreptitiously smoke, cupping their hands over the glow of their cigarettes.
Around one freshly dug grave there’s a straggling group of mourners, gazing at an ornate coffin. Most are old men, grey-haired but hard-eyed, their ageing bodies camouflaged by well-cut suits. Some are accompanied by well-preserved wives their own age. Others by younger, thinner, blonder women. Several are in wheelchairs, but they too share the grim-faced look of the others.
Also among the mourners are several older women, clearly on their own. There’s something about them that says they’re not cut from ordinary cloth. Whatever they might have in common, they stand apart from each other, looking stonily ahead.
A young priest nervously intones the melancholy words of the Book of Common Prayer.
“I am the resurrection and the life, saith the Lord…” but he hesitates as one wheelchair-bound old man thrusts himself forward, trying to get a better view. It’s Wheelchair Harry. Even at his age, and even in a wheelchair, he’s an intimidating figure.
The priest continues: “He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”
The wheelchair bumps into another old man, Fat Frank. Not so fat these days, age and illness having taken their toll; skinny arms and legs frame a still enormous pot belly. But he’s just as scary as Wheelchair Harry.
Harry’s wheelchair spatters mud on Fat Frank’s immaculate shoes and trousers. “What the f…?” Frank hisses, biting back the imprecation as the priest looks nervously over at the commotion. “And whosoever liveth and believeth in me,’ he continues, ‘yet shall he never die.”
“Move your fat arse, Frank,” says Harry. “Let the dog see the bone.”
A woman standing next to Frank gives the two men a sharp look. Dolly, approaching seventy and still a striking woman, though now heavier than in her Soho prime. She holds a single rose in one gloved hand. The old men quieten down, muttering ominously, and the priest continues.
“We brought nothing into this earth and it is certain we can carry nothing out.” Suddenly the altercation escalates. Fat Frank shoves Wheelchair Harry, hard.
“Wanna stand up and say that to my face?”
Harry laughs coarsely. “Are you blind as well as fat, Frank? In case you’ve forgotten, I’m bloody paralysed!” Dolly frowns and shushes the two men, who again subside, muttering. She smiles reassuringly at the priest, who nods at her gratefully. He clears his throat, and declaims “the Lord gave and the Lord hath taken away.”
But, like a dormant volcano returning to terrifying life, the spat between Wheelchair Harry and Fat Frank explodes furiously. “Paralyzed my arse!” yells Frank. “Too lazy to learn to walk again, if you ask me!”
Harry’s face is a mask of rage. “Oh yeah? I wasn’t too lazy to shag your wife, was I?”
The priest blinks, turns up the volume: “My heart was hot within me, and while I was thus musing the fire kindled: and at last I spake with my tongue.” But Frank and Harry are now speaking so loudly with their tongues that there’s a rustle of alarm among the other mourners. They peer round at the geriatric combatants.
“You bastard!” yells Frank, as he pulls out a large handgun. With a concerned murmur, the crowd shrinks back from the confrontation, but the priest ploughs gamely on: “Lord, let me know mine end, and the number of my days: that I may be certified how long I have to live.”
Now Harry snarls at his tormentor. “You and yer bloody guns. Go on then Frank, shoot me. What do I care… I’m eighty years old.” Frank, face purple with rage, veins in his neck pulsing dangerously, wipes saliva from his waistcoat. He jabs the gun into Harry’s ribs.
“Right, that’s it, I’m gonna swing for you.”
Dolly finally snaps, turns on the warring old men. “For Christ’s sake, you two! This is Enrique’s funeral! Show a bit of respect!” The mention of Enrique brings them both up short, and they look abashed. Fat Frank puts the gun away. “Sorry Dolly, bit emotional, know what I mean?”
“Yeah, sorry Dolly,” mutters Harry. Dolly shakes her head, turns back to the priest. He gives her another grateful look, and starts to intone the final part of the service. “In the midst of life, we are in death…”
It starts to drizzle, and the pall bearers prepare to lower the coffin into the grave. The priest is about to go into his final peroration when there’s another commotion, involving the drivers and bodyguards by the cars.
They’re holding a man back, preventing him from approaching the grave. He’s carrying a sports bag in one hand and he’s arguing with the drivers and bodyguards.
The priest continues: “Of whom may we seek for succour but of thee, O Lord, who for our sins are justly displeased?”
The mourners notice the disruption. The funeral seems to freeze as everyone turns to Dolly. Will she be justly displeased? With Enrique gone, she is the key figure – not just the funeral’s organizer but the heir to Enrique’s power.
How will she exercise that power?
A greasy Wimpy bag blew haphazardly along the street. It had travelled from down-at-heel Acton, through dodgy Shepherds Bush and was nearing nondescript Hammersmith. Had it ever contained anything edible, it had long been stripped of it by foraging pigeons and sparrows.
A Routemaster double-decker swished by, its slipstream wafting the bag up onto the dirty pavement. There were few feet to avoid along the Shepherd’s Bush Road, just a half-drunk couple exiting the Hong Tin Chinese restaurant. They’d been tossed out of the pub at eleven o’clock, hungry enough to chance the Hong, and were now scooping chow mein from tinfoil containers, laughing and shouting, as they headed back to their two-room flat just off the Green.
The Wimpy bag was quite at home as it blew into the foyer of Blarney’s, where it found several others of its kind, as well as a scattering of empty Players packets and spent Swan Vestas. Blarney’s was once a big Irish pub, but had been converted by a local Larry Parnes into a venue, with a stage, a bar and along the sides of the dance floor, a few dozen tables and chairs. On most weekend nights a few hundred young men and women would blow their wages on tickets for a show that might include Marty Wilde, Billy Fury, Vince Eager, even American imports like Jerry Lee. Lonnie had appeared there, and all three of the trad ‘B’s: Ball, Barber and Bilk.
Tonight, third on the bill under Del Shannon and Brenda Lee, local Billy Fury sound-alike Johnny Rage poured heart and soul into Billy’s big hit Jealousy.
Was only through jealousy
Our hearts were broken
And angry words were spoken…
Johnny wasn’t just a sound-alike, he could have been Billy’s twin brother though, close up, not quite as beautiful and his hair more obviously dyed.
Johnny straddled the mike in front of a three-piece band, The Stormers. They were good – two experienced musicians, bass player Cyril and drummer Stewie, and a seventeen-year-old organ player, Paul Henley, who looked even younger but played like a New Orleans veteran, making the best of the bulky Hammond with chunky chords and bluesy licks. Johnny Rage and The Stormers were semi-pros – Johnny was a gas fitter by day – but they had a big local following and were a popular choice to fill out the bill when national tours came to London.
But no one took any notice of The Stormers when Johnny Rage was seducing the microphone, mock-kissing it, thrusting his hips in Elvis-style moves, driving the girls into a frenzy of swooning and screaming. Their boyfriends were caught between envy – resentment that this skinny show-off could have any of the girls he wanted – and hope that by the end of the evening, those same girls would be primed to let the boys do what they wanted.
Most of the girls were beehived and winklepickered and most of the boys slim-jeaned and bequiffed, even a few Teds among them.
It was 1962, but it felt like the fifties.
In the wings, Richard Upsdell – known to all as Stuttery Dick – looked on proprietorially. He was a lean and self-confident youth, despite his terrible stutter. He was the band’s manager.
Now Johnny Rage went one stage further, making love to the mike, leaning it back, caressing it, his hips spasming, bringing the girls to the outer reaches of knicker-throwing hysteria.
Paul chose the moment to interject a tricksy lick, which brought a glare from Johnny. He didn’t want any fancy stuff, just the chord changes. Paul shrugged, but took it down a notch. Now Johnny laid the mike stand on the floor and lay on it, his hips gyrating over it.
The heartaches I caused you
No wonder I lost you…
… was all over my Jealouseeeeeeeeeeeee…
The crowd – the girls – surged toward the stage as Johnny reached the climax, of both the song and his simulated sex act.
At the moment he seemed to orgasm, he convulsed.
At first the audience was goaded to new heights of hysteria, but Paul and the musicians had seen Johnny’s act many times and this was different. Not an orgasm, even a pretend one.
A heart attack!
Paul was the first to react, to understand that Johnny was in real trouble. He sprang out from behind the Hammond, the other band members and Stuttery Dick close behind him. Paul fell to his knees beside the dying singer.
“Jesus Christ, Johnny! Johnny!” But, befitting his role as manager, Stuttery Dick took charge. He grabbed the mike. “G-get a doctor. For Christ’s sake, someone get a b-bloody doctor!”
A moment of dead silence fell over the audience as the reality set in. They milled around, uncertain what to do, the girls with their hands to their mouths, some crying. Five minutes seemed like five hours, until finally everyone heard the wailing of an approaching ambulance. Hammersmith Hospital was only minutes away, and by chance one of its ambulances was navigating the Hammersmith roundabout when the 999 call came in.
As the ambulance men did what they could for Johnny, an old Ford Popular bunny-hopped down the main road of a nondescript housing estate in Norwich. Gripping the wheel tightly was Suzie Geale, a beautiful seventeen-year-old who, like Johnny’s audience, was dressed in a style closer to the fifties than the sixties: knee-length skirt, winklepicker stilettos, dark hair in a beehive.
Nothing could disguise the fact that she was gorgeous. A solid gold knockout.
Morris McDonald, known as Skinny Mini, nervous in the passenger seat, was trying to appear calm. As the bunny hops threatened to turn into gazelle leaps, he half-closed his eyes.
“Whoa, whoa, clutch, Suzie! Clutch!”
Suzie managed to depress the clutch and the car came to a jerky halt. She turned to Skinny Mini beaming. “So? How did I do?”
He expelled a relieved breath. “You’re no Stirling Moss, but you’re getting the idea.”
“Thanks, Skin. For letting me drive, I mean.” Impulsively she leaned across and kissed his cheek.
Suzie’s father, behind the living room curtains, saw the kiss. He grimaced, clenched his fists.
Suzie climbed out of the car, smoothed down her skirt and waved to Morris as the old Pop accelerated away. With a nought to sixty time of about a fortnight, it took an age to reach the end of the road, but Suzie watched till it disappeared round the corner.
Now Suzie turned and faced the house. Took a breath, walked up to the front door. She let herself in, slipped off her winklepickers and, carrying them by the heels, crept towards the stairs. The streetlight through the front door cast her shadow on the wall, a tiptoeing silhouette like a Loony Tunes cartoon. But she stopped dead as the lights flicked on.
Standing before her was her furious father.
“What time do you call this?” he hissed. Suzie calmly checked her watch. “Half past eleven, dad.”
Her father slapped her hard across the side of her head, his big hand sending her flying. His face betrayed something brutal, primitive, then, as the blow connected, a kind of relief.
Suzie reeled back, seeing stars, trying hard not to cry out. It wasn’t the first time her father had hit her but this time he’d almost knocked her out.
She regained her balance and sprang forward, slamming a winklepicker heel into her father’s face, tearing a deep gash in his cheek.
He screamed as he fell, slapping a hand to the wound, the blood spurting between his fingers. Suzie leaned in, careful to stay out of reach.
“That,” she whispered, “is the last time you touch me, you bastard.”