In some kind of previous life – that I suppose must be roughly termed my youth – I was ‘something’ (and the emphasis is on that word) of a musician and a writer. Looking back over the work that I produced is an extremely curious and cringe-inducing business, so much so that it almost hurts.
Thankfully, if I’m to be honest for the sake of my pride, there’s a few things that, well, for want of a better phrase, showed some promise. Take, for instance, ‘What Money Can Buy’, which was published many moons ago when I suspect that I was an entirely different person and yet simultaneously the one and the same.
It is quite possible to critically crucify this short story (which I’ve reproduced below with only a few amendments to the most clunky sentences). From a technical point of view it has so many, many faults that it would be a waste of time to go into them (so, instead, I will let anyone who cares to read on identify them for him or herself). However, despite my own censure, there is a touch of something enduring in the writing that makes ‘What Money Can Buy’ worth airing again, if only on this blog.
The content. ‘What Money Can Buy’ was written at a time when far too many writers, both acclaimed and obscure, had, in the main, been hoodwinked some way or another into believing the very political and widespread view that we had reached the end of history. So much for even a nod or a wink to the idealistic notion that writers legislate for the world. So much for your own vision when you can create characters and a fictional world that fits someone else’s worldview or propaganda. Grotesque commercialism doesn’t cover it. And while it is often said that much literature indirectly reflects the dominant ideology of its time, it shouldn’t be slavish. If you don’t think any of this matters, I’m afraid you’ve much to learn about the art of representation. To illustrate this point I’ll briefly point out that around the same time a publisher criticised another piece I had written because a working-class character had been portrayed as being trapped in his environment when, according to the publisher and the politicians he had spent too much time listening to, we lived in the perfect capitalist meritocracy. Yes, I laughed wryly at the time even if it wasn’t really funny and has got even less so.
We have ‘What Money Can Buy’ from the days when we were told the world was practically perfect and you only had yourself to blame. Before the financial collapse, before all the incontrovertible exposes of the system’s corruption, it’s brutal, ideological wars and greedy, imperialist looting. Before a lot more people began waking up to the shift of power and wealth that the neoliberals in power had always intended, whilst laughing and raising the middle finger of their mythical, invisible hand at us.
Which in more than a roundabout way brings us to the story’s symbolism, which, at a quick glance, seems brutally commensurate to the story’s content, if not entirely aesthetic. But that is only at a quick glance (and perhaps one of the story’s morals is that we need to look a little harder to see what is really going on). When, for whatever reason, I pulled the tome that features ‘What Money Can Buy’ (a collection of short stories called Next Stop Hope, which may or may not be still available from an outlet that I will not recommend until they pay their fair share of tax) from a bookshelf and began reading, I was surprised by my younger self’s control of fiction’s symbolic power. The entire piece is enormously symbolic, from the downright obvious, which I’m sure every reader will instantly understand, to the deeply subtle, which may be more demanding. Most poets don’t come close to it in a lifetime. There you go; I’ve got to blow my own trumpet once in a while. And, oh yeah, the sentence structure, or more precisely, the elision – it’s there for a reason. Maybe you’ll get it.
The story has a few other points to recommend it, but I think I’ve reached the point where I should allow anyone that is still reading the chance to visit ‘What Money Can Buy’s fictional world without further intrusion from the writer looking back over his own shoulder at the start of a new year.
What Money Can Buy
The man who was chained to the tree surely knew survival was beyond him now. There was something of the martyr in those deep alert eyes – seeing all around, yet making no attempt to communicate, be understood. Grim reconciliation: this was the only way. The nightmare that had haunted him for years revealing itself to have been a premonition.
A ballooning swelling disfigured the flesh of the man’s right cheek. His bloodied nose was pushed and flattened towards that sore, stark decoration of violence as if an invisible hand was incessantly exerting pressure. Pain. Though partially concealed by the chains the man’s clothing was evidently in some disarray. White shirt ripped, blotched scarlet; black trousers torn at the thigh, both knees. The stains of grass and earth.
It had been a struggle to bring him here.
There were three other men. They crowded the small clearing in the woods that the man could not help but face. Captors and captive. The three captors were uniformly dressed – military green bomber jackets, faded jeans, outdoor boots. A black balaclava was roughly stuffed into one of the men’s rear jeans’ pocket.
The first captor, rugged, unshaven, looked up high: a summer blue jigsaw piece of sky framed by dense greenery, the high branches of the trees on the edge of the clearing. The sun that could not be seen from here would be setting in a short while. Perhaps that is why he then checked his watch, looked to his allies with an expression that was undeniably affirmative.
Finally he focussed on the captive: ‘Trees and trees and trees for miles and miles and miles. No one will hear you if you shout so, now the gag’s off, at your leisure, kick up all the fuss that you want.’ Lighting a cigarette the blond, crew-cropped second captor continued to nervously pace two yards forward, turn, pace another few yards, turn and on. Walking the spot. ‘Yes, shout for all your worth but if the sound of your voice gets under my skin, well, I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes.’ Despite the victim’s vulnerability the threat lacked the daggers of menace; the man puff-puffing tobacco had not the same villainous aplomb of his comrade. The man chained to the tree gave no sign that he had heard any words. ‘I wouldn’t like to be in your shoes, anyway,’ said the third captor. All six-and-a-half hulking feet of him – the man mountain with the greying beard, thinning crown. He was maybe a decade the senior of the others. His huge frame leaned on the spade with which they had done their digging, somewhere amongst the trees, close by. The man chained to the tree could not recall hearing the giant speak before. The giant narrowed his eyes, watching intently, while the first captor grinned with pleasure, ‘Drop-dead gorgeous.’ Full of mockery for that beaten figure shackled by industrial links, padlocks. Chains that twisted round his midriff and pinned his arms and legs to the bark. Everything wrapped and trapped. ‘The fashion world doesn’t know what it’s missing.’ A taunting guffaw. The nervous smoker sniggered sycophantically when the joker turned to see if his wisecrack had been appreciated.
Not everyone could be likewise persuaded. ‘What’s his game?’ With raised brows the first and second captors watched the giant scratch at his beard, mystified by the victim’s reticent hold on dignity despite the brutality he’d suffered, the poison black cloud over him. ‘Why doesn’t he plead for mercy?’
‘He knows it would be no use. He knows why he’s here.’ The grin might have vanished but the scorn remained. ‘To die and make my world.’
‘He’s too chicken scared to talk.’ The second captor’s quick cautious glance towards the first was one that sought approval. It received only a smug nod. Some private notion had perhaps been confirmed. ‘Chicken scared,’ the second reiterated, striding the few yards to halt right there, on top of the prisoner. A bully-boy smirk, a lengthy drag on the half-gone cigarette – blue-grey smoke rings blown in the pummelled face. ‘Are you chicken?’ Sneering, flicking the cigarette butt away. A clenched fist held inches from the mess of the broken nose. Unblinking, meeting his tormentor eye to eye, the captive’s tongue refused even a whisper. ‘He’s chicken.’ The fist unfolded, a mouthful of spit splattered the ground. ‘Well then, we all know why we’re here and, it’s getting late, we’d better get it over with.’ The flicker of eye contact between the first captor and the giant suggested that the latter had no real part to play, was merely a spectator. ‘Who’ll do it?’ The second captor rocked on his heels.
‘You know who’ll do it. We drew straws, didn’t we?’
‘Yes, we drew straws,’ a confession uttered with much reluctance. Drawing straws had not been the right way to come to such a sombre, significant decision.
‘Wait!’ The word was emphasised by the slamming of the spade into the earth. ‘We’ll see what he has to say for himself.’ The huge man spoke with authority, as if he too had come to a decision. The first looked on with displeasure. ‘You’re not getting cold feet, too, are you?’
‘No. But I’d like to hear what he has to say. Speak!’
From face to face to face. Sullen malice, fear, uncertainty. Unspoken questions, beginnings of pity. The captive did not speak as he had been ordered, however.
‘See! Let’s get it over.’
‘There’s something that isn’t right.’
‘Isn’t right? There’s nothing wrong with justice.’
‘That’s what this is called, is it? Such a high and mighty word.’
‘Damn you!’ Judge, jury spun round, showed his back in anger. ‘Damn you!’ Stomping over to the tree he kicked out, chipped the bark with his wrath. ‘We go through it all, down to the finest detail, everything goes to plan and then, on some cowardly whim, you change your mind when it matters most!’
‘Maybe we need to do things right. A last request?’ He who had drawn the short straw – he who was to be the executioner – had grown in confidence now he knew that another also had doubts. Maybe, just maybe, he wouldn’t have to be the one who did the killing after all. If only there was enough time. His fingernails tap-tapped the cigarette packet. ‘I think…’
‘Just get it done.’ But he dared ignore the order, strode before the captive again. This time a cigarette was pulled from the near empty packet, gently placed between the puffy red lips. ‘Smoke?’ He was about to reach in his pocket for a light when the cigarette fell to the floor. ‘Get it over with,’ the first commanded impatiently.
‘I’m trying to..’
‘I know what you’re fucking trying to do. Get it over with.’
‘Why doesn’t he say anything.’
‘Does it matter?’
‘He fought hard enough to stop being dragged into the van.’
‘That’s right. My ribs still ache.’
‘That was a mistake. We should have used the gun to get him in the van. No one was around. His type of fool is used to brawling in bars. It was his territory. We could have blown it by giving him a chance to fight back. But he was placid enough when we eventually put the gun to his back and led him up here, through the trees. He was timid enough while we were digging his grave.’ A cruel smile flickered across the speaker’s mouth. The second captor grimaced and complained, ‘The sod gave me a nasty bang to the jaw.’
‘Well, stop using it if it aches. You’ve got the pistol now. You swore you’d use it with a drink down your throat. There’ll be no problems, you said.’
Nothing but the gruesome truth.
His complexion drained to a deathly pale as if he was also staring down a barrel. Jacket unzipped, his hand reached inside. The small black handgun. That doleful expression said he would give anything for someone else to be holding it. The safety catch was flicked. ‘Are you sure this is the right man?’ The big man wanted to know, his voice was clear, resolute. He wanted no mistake. Not for one moment had he imagined the victim to be capable of that brave fight for survival. And then this wordless obstinacy in the face of death. This was not how they had portrayed him. ‘Of course I’m fucking sure it’s the right man.’
‘What’s your name?’ Doubt was gnawing away at resolve. The prisoner glanced disregardfully away. At the outset it had been a great stubborn sense of injustice that had made him mute. It had been the same sense of injustice that had prevented him breaking down, falling to emotional pieces. No matter what, the belief that this should not happen to anyone would not allow him to give them any other opportunities to gloat. He’d swallowed and swallowed the lumps in his throat. He had not even begged for the sake of his young daughter and wife. Now, watching his captors debate and wrangle, hope had been reborn. Maybe all was not lost. Maybe he could getaway yet. It was about timing the roll of the dice. The winning gamble. Money makes the winners’ world go round, while losers get nothing. So don’t give them anything yet. Let them talk. Let them talk each other out of it. ‘We know his name. It’s him.’
‘Have you got the photograph?’
‘I’ve burnt anything that could be used as evidence. Once we’re out of the district they’ll be nothing to say we’ve ever been here.’
‘But you’re the only one who saw the photograph.’
‘Do you think I’m stupid enough to snatch and shoot the wrong man? One thing you both should remember – I’m in this for the money. I haven’t personal feelings about this.’ They considered it. ‘You wouldn’t get the wrong man but…’
‘Maybe we should let him go.’
‘Let him go? Are you for real?’ In anger his right arm swished through the air as if he was a hysterical fanatic punishing an heretic. But he had no stone or whip. Just words. For the moment. ‘And let him go blabbing his mouth all over the place and running straight to the law! All the money in the world won’t be able to pay for a cover up. Don’t forget he’s had a good look at all of us! Get it over with! The job done, we get our money and that’s it. You don’t have to get involved in anything like this again.’
‘Don’t do it. Don’t let him talk you into murder.’ At the hushed rasping urgency of the voice all three captors froze. Long seconds passed.
‘He’s the one. Don’t forget what he once stupidly did.’ The first to recover his wits, the first captor held his ground. ‘And I want my money. You know I could have done this on my own. I could have asked someone else to join me. Someone with more bottle. But I thought you were my friends, the very people who could be trusted. I gave you a chance to get your hands on some cash. However much you might want to blow it all he’s not going to escape. He gets away over my dead body! Give me the gun!’
‘Don’t do it. Don’t let him talk you into murder.’
‘Give me the gun! I’ll do it! I’ve had more training in situations like this. Fucking cannon fodder regiments!’ His features contorted, embittered with ugly intent. And away from that rising reckless craziness the second captor stepped back. ‘I’ll do it! I’ll fucking do it! Pass the gun!’ The first captor shadowed the second captor’s moves, hand outstretched, fiercely demanding that the gun be handed over. A point blank refusal. Tracking further away. Didn’t use the gun to ward the first off, the gun aimed down – this, a blind retreat. And the stalker stalked. He had noticed the boulder jutting from the earth, knew that his prey would unsuspectingly stumble. An abrupt lunge, hand grabbing at hand that had finger on trigger. Another hand gripped and crushed throat. By some miracle the finger on the trigger did not squeeze. It slipped harmlessly from danger. The struggle for power began. Like a fight between actors, a fight choreographed. Wary, delicate trickery, thrusts of grunting brute force. The loaded weapon struck fear into both combatants, neither wanting the confrontation yet neither wanting to back down. To lose. They had to have the gun. The gun controlled the future.
They grunted and pushed, tripped, made fists to slug. Fingers tried clawing eyes. ‘If you don’t watch it the weapon will fire!’ In great alarm the bearded bearded third captor held his head in his hands. Which side should he take? Should he step in, use his colossal brawn to end the lunacy? Would the gun accidentally be fired? And dreading the consequences if it was. The giant’s warning had some effect. Though the first captor wrestled on, snarling, undaunted, his fast tiring opponent was influenced to relent. Allowed the gun to be wrenched from his grasp. He had not been determined and strong enough to win. Not in a game like this.
They crouched over, panting, catching their breath.
‘You should have said you didn’t have the heart right at the beginning. Now we’ve come so far we can’t turn back. You’ll do better to think about the money and the money alone.’
‘I don’t want to be responsible. I didn’t…’
‘Nobody ever does. But don’t you realise that someone would have taken the job? Someone who dared not to care. Someone who knows the value of money. Making a mortal enemy of a rich man was not a clever thing to do.’ A finger condemned the man chained to the tree. ‘He has to pay. Maybe the best legal team money can buy wouldn’t stand a chance, couldn’t nail him – for what he did – how could it? But there are always other means. When money can’t buy the law, it can buy those other means. Us. Together. We can nail him. We’ve been careful. They’ll be nothing to connect us to the death. Trust me, I’ve made sure of that.’
‘What if the paymaster refuses to pay?’
‘They’ll be no way we can make him.’
The giant man frowned, reflectively stroked his whiskers. ‘It has to be done.’ Now the gun had changed hands he knew that there was no turning back, that it was over, no room for debate. ‘It’s true, if we let him live he’ll be able to identify us all. The law will be alerted that there’s a price on his head, they’ll know who put it there. Then they’ll be a price on our heads for screwing everything up. This is a secluded spot, maybe the body will never be discovered. Whatever, we have to see it through now.’
Both the second captor and the captive closed their eyes.
Marching to the tree where the captive was held the man who had won the gun looked to be without conscience. A tigerish stare revealed no emotion only the nerve that had never wavered. Without ceremony the gun was pressed against the living dead’s temple. ‘Our time on earth is full of good-byes.’ A sadistic tone of enjoyment. The others grimaced, looked away.
Their ears could not be averted to the crack, the sudden vicious blast that echoed through the woods, sent unseen animals scrambling, birds flapping, caw-cawing. The same blast that sent shudders up and down their spines. Not wanting to but needing to know they turned to see if it had really happened. Immediately they turned away. Another shot rang out. A few wet, bludgeoning thuds. The face would be beyond recognition.
They heard a clanking of chains, a solitary dull, heavier thud. Something being dragged along, twigs snapping. The giant stared at his boots, sighed and took a deep breath. Get it over. He left the second captor standing dazed, gazing into emptiness. In no time the sound of the spade working. Filling the shallow grave that each had taken turns to dig.
Shaking fingers fumbled to light a smoke while the corpse was dealt with. How many cigarettes he went through, how long the deed took, he did not know. Shortly, eventually, they rejoined him. They were three again. ‘Pity about the mess on the tree. The muck I’ve thrown on it conceals it reasonably enough though.’ The heavy load of chains was thrust into idle hands. ‘Make yourself useful, carry these.’ The recipient of the chains could not avoid shrinking back, disturbed by the thick, fresh blood on the arms of the killer’s jacket. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll not wear it to a dance.’ A casual glance over his shoulder. ‘It’s done.’ The killer motioned with the gun: ‘We might be unlucky, that might have been heard by the old gamekeeper. I know he likes to visit a pub in one of the villages four or five miles away at this hour, likes a whiskey or three before last orders, but to be on the safe side we should make a move. It would be typical if tonight of all the nights he decided to stay sober.’
A reply was not forthcoming.
And they left wordlessly, in single file. Down a mossy rocky slope, to the dry mud path, into the darkening depths of the woods. The rattle of chains, the tramp of boots, diminished. In no time the trio were lost from view altogether amongst the twilight and trees.
Next Stop Hope is still available from http://www.route-online.com/all-books/next-stop-hope.html