Armageddon was here.
The moment the bullet had entered Macheath’s skull and shattered a single world into atoms, the world had caught fire. Nothing cleansing about this fire: it charred and choked, grabbing the oxygen from the air with greedy fingers and bombarding the crowd with a storm of blackened fragments. It took people a few moments to recognize them as fat black carrion flies, fastening upon exposed human skin and rubbing their scratchy little forelegs in glee.
At that grisly realization, everyone broke in revulsion and sprinted for the shoreline. In a matter of minutes, a gaggle of frightened humanity had gathered, shivering and gasping for breath, on the high sweep of esplanade that bordered the bleak shingle beach.
But as the swarm of corpse-flies dispersed, a hollow roar gurgled underneath the crowd’s feet, soon followed by the first earthquake in the town’s eight-hundred year history. An eruption of corruption. The smooth tarmac juddered and leapt beneath them, rolling out like a carpet and scattering the hapless citizens like skittles.
Then, before everyone had quite finished screaming, there came a sound like a dozen buildings simultaneously buckling under their own weight.
“Oh Lor’!” bawled the voice of Les Peachum. “It’s the concrete!”
“Concrete, da?” Polly repeated in a daze.
“The concrete, my girl! It’s not sound! It was never sound, I cut a few corners with the mix – here and there – oh gaw’ blimey, girl, it’s gonna go! Polly, get out of ‘ere! Run! Save yerself!” Polly stared appalled at her father’s eyes, which rolled with terror like a rabid dog’s. “It’s going, I tell yer! The whole bleedin’ town’s gonna fall!”
In answer to Peachum’s howling came a layer of grey dust that rose from two dozen concrete monoliths as softly as a cloud of vapour. First the dust, then bigger pieces – shards the size of fingernails, fists, skulls - wrenched themselves from the grim façades and shot out towards the horizon, flying over the heads of the crowd to converge upon a single point a hundred feet above the sea. There, as if guided by invisible hands, the specks and chunks began to move outwards and upwards; to fuse together, to mesh and acquire volume, to coalesce into long pieces of smooth white bone.
Then, the churchlike arches of a ribcage.
Then, a long and craggy toothed skull.
Until there, suspended in some unseen matrix within the evening air, was the pale skeleton of a gigantic hell-hound. A massive demon dog formed from rotten concrete, hovering high above the sea, judging the town from its empty sockets.
Standing numb with shock, Polly felt her father fall past her and slump to his knees on the ground. “Look, I didn’t tell him to shoot you!” Peachum howled in despair, his sweating face tilted upwards, kneeling abjectly to the thing as if it were some hideous idol demanding sacrifice. “I told him Goodman! Goodman! I said Goodman! I never meant you!”
A woman burst from the crowd and staggered forward: Widow Goodman, her face a mask of horror as she began to scream for the splintered ruin of her life. From where it hovered above the water the Pale Hound joined her, in a howl fit to shake the earth once more.
Then the thing twisted its neck upwards and, with a decisive snap of its jaws, disembowelled the sky. Lightning forked from the gaping wound and formed an eight-pointed compass of searing jagged light against the grey-mottled clouds. Back the crowd fled into the town, stampeding down the narrow twisting streets, beating their fists against locked doors whilst the End of the World raged above them and the Pale Hound prepared to enact its terrible vengeance.
But after a final great and terrible howl, the Hound froze in mid-air and simply disintegrated, dissolving into a shimmering rain of powder which fell harmlessly upon the waves.
And the world didn’t end after all.
Once the din and terror had faded, what remained was an eerie stillness, a metallic taste in the air – and the crowing cackle of Mr Punch, calling from his tall booth on the beach. That sinister giggle awakened something in the cowering crowds. An awareness of their own breathing, perhaps, or the stubborn pulse of their hearts.
In the distance a crimson sun settled slowly into the waves, and everyone knew it would rise on cue the next morning. All around, people stretched and exhaled, and looked to a future scrubbed so clean it looked like a blank page.
Armageddon was over. Macheath was dead, but the town had survived.
Now everyone was free.
Considering the general character of the town after dark – hard-drinking, hard-drugged, sordid, squalid and unashamed – night-time should have seen the beachfront brimming and buzzing with a populace with something to celebrate. Instead, the Dead Dog Apocalypse had been curiously sobering. The grand majority of the eyewitnesses crept back to their homes – presumably to change their underwear – and didn’t return that evening. Most of the night-time streets now lay open and empty as a rifled tomb.
The local pier, however, showed gaudily defiant signs of life with its encrustation of lightbulbs clinging like shining barnacles to its wooden hoardings. Unfortunately, it had been ages since anyone had bothered to fix the lettering, so the welcome sign proudly announced “THE PALACE PIE” in all the colours of the rainbow.
At the very end of the pier, past the hulking silent silhouettes of the fairground rides, was a wrought-metal railing painted in pale grey. On it, a slight figure in T-shirt and jeans was perched alone in huddled misery. Shivering, his fingers curled under the railing, gripping it tightly. His skinny backside was balanced carefully on the narrow upper rail, legs dangling over the edge so that he faced out to sea. His head was pounding. Between his knees, he saw the black seawaters boiling beneath him, a kaleidoscopic grey lace of moon-froth churning endlessly.
At his back he heard the echoing click of footsteps. He continued to stare emptily down into the darkness.
“Filch?” came a woman’s voice, tentative. “Filchy, is that you?”
“Polly.” If he hadn’t felt so drained, he would have turned around to say hello. “How’s tricks? Still got Mac’s gang toeing the line?
Behind him, Polly audibly shivered. “Look, Filchy, where’s your coat? Night like this, you’ll catch your death...“
“Got mugged, didn’t I?” Filch did his best to seem nonchalant, though his bony fingers gripped the rail more tightly. “Had it nicked off me. One of your lot.”
“Really? Who on earth – ?”
“Joey. The monkey. Little bastard not only bit me face yesterday, but today, when he twigged that I was carrying stuff for your dad’s daiquiris, nice fresh bananas, he…”
“Yup.” The first Filch had known of the monkey’s presence was a horrible screech in his ear, followed swiftly by a drop-kick to the side of his head. When Filch regained his senses, the evidence indicated that Joey had scoffed two dozen bananas, royally puked all over the pavement, then ripped off Filch’s long green coat and torn it into ribbons in a futile search for further Chiquitas. Then, when he noticed Filch regaining consciousness, Joey had scampered up the nearest lamp-post, hung there to deliver a one-fingered salute, then leapt off and swung, arm over arm, along all the lamp-posts in Marine Parade.
He’d thought she’d giggle at the story, but she didn’t. “Seriously… Please get off there.”
He shrugged, but he didn’t shift an inch.
“Listen, you really don’t want to fall. Believe me.”
Filch shrugged again. “D’you ever wonder what life hadn’t been like, if you hadn’t been born? Ever wonder how you made life turn out that way? And I don’t mean that ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’ guff, that you’re so great that things would be awful if you hadn’t lived. No, I mean the opposite. I mean ‘It’s A Shit Life’, starring an absolute wanker. I mean facing all the toxic crap that you made happen, thanks to the choices you made.”
He heard Polly draw a ragged breath. “What did you do, Filchy?”
“I saved Mac’s life, didn’t I?” Filch seethed angrily, then spat into the darkness to clear his mouth. It was no use: bitterness seeped back again. Memories that tasted of blood and roaring artillery, and miles of roasting hot tarmac. And over them all, a searing white eye: the pitiless Eye of Judgement. “We were in the Army together. Road ambush. Mac took a bullet. Looked like a goner, but no, Muggins here went back for him. Kept him going all the way to a field hospital. Saved his life. Saved him, so he could come back here and – “
“Kill Goodman,” Polly breathed.
“Kill Goodman, yeah. And break your heart. And get all the girls in ‘The Slammerkin’ up the duff. A one-man crime tsunami laying waste to this scabby little town, and all because Muggins here wouldn’t let him die –”
Before he knew it, a pair of leather-clad arms had clamped around his upper torso and were hauling him violently back from the railing. What Polly lacked in upper body strength she compensated for with grim determination, and soon she had him back over the safe side of the rails. Losing his balance, he twisted and flung out his arms, catching Polly’s waist so she overbalanced in turn. With a mutual startled yell, the two of them fell backwards onto the ancient wooden planking.
Dazed and winded, Filch lay there, gazing up at the black salt-sprinkled void above him. Sprawled next to him was Polly in her leather jacket, groaning softly at her rough landing.
“Not letting you die either,” he heard her mutter under her breath. “Dickhead.”
“Right,” he murmured, too dazed to do anything but express agreement. He couldn’t feel peeved at the insult: on the contrary, it was a pleasurable shock to find she cared enough about him to drag him off the edge and back into the land of the living.
Filch had always cared about Polly, even since he’d joined Les Peachum’s employ (about six weeks after the Army had told him to sling his hook). He’d first seen Polly when she was nineteen and stepping through life in a sweet haze of ivory innocence. Gosh, she was smashing. Way out of his league, of course, but that wasn’t the point. The point was that he was there, in the background, to protect her.
Except he’d even managed to bodge that. He never thought to warn her about Macheath, the grinning shark in the sharp blue suit. The memory of stumbling across Mac and Polly in a passionate clinch, with confetti fluttering around them, still had the power to make him sick to his stomach. And then Mac had taken Polly’s tender trusting heart and ripped it down the middle, tossing the pieces away.
Though Macheath hadn’t made a monster of her. Despite the betrayal that had charred and changed her, she still had enough compassion left in her to give a damn about her father’s ‘walking punchbag’ employee. (Really, Filch was almost ecstatic about being wrestled to the floor and verbally abused.) But since Polly clearly still had a heart left to hurt, Filch had to tread carefully. No more venom about Mac; not in front of the woman whose heart was still bruised. Both he and Polly had just witnessed on the scaffold the death of someone they cared for. Now he had to be kind.
“About Mac,” he muttered awkwardly. “I’m, erm, sorry.”
From where she lay, she turned her head and gave him a dark, unreadable stare. “Thanks. I’ll live. At least he divorced me and Lucy before he blew his brains out. And he gave her the suitcase of Da’s money too, the bastard.”
“Did he? Oh, Poll…”
“Nah. It’s fine. She needed it. Her baby, it’s…”
“Mac’s. I know.”
“I’m glad she’s got it,” Polly continued, visibly willing herself to be calm. “The suitcase with the money, I mean. It’s just… It makes it easier, having some actual proof that he rated her over me.”
“It’s not easy. To stop loving someone.”
Polly sighed. “It helps if they treat you like dried dogshit. Look, my hip hurts, mind if I…?”
“Oh! Yes…” Both rose awkwardly to their feet, Filch wincing slightly at the fresh bruise to add to his collection. At the railing, Polly brushed a heavy wing of hair from her face and scanned the far horizon.
“You were there, weren’t you? At the execution?”
He hadn’t expected a blow right on the wound that hadn’t healed. Turning away, he felt tears threatening to escape from his eyes, but he blinked them back fiercely. Boys don’t cry. Boys don’t cry. His mental mantra since the age of eleven, part of the iron structure that kept him moving forward. “I was, but I got there too late. I couldn’t… stop what happened.”
“Nah. You couldn’t, Filchy.” Polly’s voice was husky with bitterness. “No-one on Earth could have saved Mac. Remember how he always said, ‘I am not afraid to die’?”
“Well, I know why. ‘Cause he was afraid to live. ‘Cause the longer he lived, the longer there was for the rest of us to work out the truth. For his lies to catch up with him. And then when he had to face up to that, he dodged the bullet by…”
“Not dodging the bullet.”
“Yeah. Which is why you’re not going back up onto that rail, sweetheart. You’re not afraid of living, and neither am I. Not anymore.”
Those last two words of hers struck him like a punch to the chest. Wordlessly, he swung round to her, held out his arms and offered her his embrace, as one of Hell’s outcasts to another. At first she eyed him like a potential trap. Then – miraculously – she silently consented, and let herself be gathered into the circle of his arms.
Beneath that jacket and that stony-eyed show of bravado, she was cowering. Trying not to feel, not to tremble; yet she was caught, just as he was, by a pain that gnawed at her and would not rest.
“I should never have told you,” he said. Don’t bloody cry, he silently ordered himself, but as her head gently rested on his shoulder he couldn’t prevent his eyes from prickling with guilt at his part in it all. He’d been so desperately thoughtless. When she’d put the pieces of the monstrous black clockwork together – her parents, Mac, Goodman’s bleeding corpse – he should have been on guard. He should denied it all. He shouldn’t have left her alone on the pier.
He should have known what she’d do.
“I asked for it,” Polly muttered, jerking her head back to look straight at him with her piercing stare. “I asked you for the Truth. ‘The darkest, heaviest, truest Truth there is,’ I said, like a silly little nitwit who thinks everything can be sorted out with a smile and a hug and true love forever. Well, I got told,” she concluded stonily. “Wasn’t your fault I couldn’t cope.”
“You did cope. You’re still here.” He drew her back in for another embrace, stroking her hair slowly in an effort to console her. They stood together in each other’s arms for a very long time, and when she finally parted from him she was smiling.
Hers was a smile charged with electric meaning, and he took its current at once. Lowering his head, his fingers cradled the back of his reddening neck while his heart clanged like an alarm bell behind his ribs. Easier to turn his eyes to the ground than actually face what he felt for the new Polly, the girl with her naiveté all burned away. She was stronger and better-defined than before: dark, complex, compelling.
Yes, all right. Sexy. Maybe he just had a weakness for black leather jackets and haunted eyes, but he’d never dreamed Polly could look so incredible.
But no, he couldn’t take it any further. Not now. Not after everything Polly’d been through in the last twenty-four hours. Someone like Macheath would have seen a broken, distraught, recently bereaved girl and judged it the perfect time to make his move, but Filch liked to think he was a bit classier than that.
“Do you need me to stay with you?” Polly was saying, indicating the town with a jerk of her head. “Go somewhere for a drink, maybe? If we can find anywhere?”
“Nah, it’s OK. I’m fine.” When she lifted one quizzical eyebrow, he sighed heavily. “Really. I can be by meself, ta.”
“Well, maybe you can… But I don’t want to be alone.”
There it was: her voice was quiet, but her tone was direct and unmistakable as lightning. Filch didn’t know whether to fall at her feet or run a mile.
“I’m not joking, sweetheart. I mean it. Please, come with me,” she urged, her hand reaching for his hand. She must have felt him trembling, for she pressed his fingers even more tightly, her warmth sending static charges through his chilled skin. “I can’t be alone and I can’t go home… But I do know someplace we can stay.”
Filch could barely speak, so she spoke for him.
“Come with me. Hold me. Help me get through tonight.”
This was unreal. It was Filch’s dream come true, a dream he hadn’t even let himself imagine – and yet he froze, stricken with paralysis as he always was whenever someone gave him the come-on. She saw it, and drew back in dismay.
“What’s the matter? Don’t you want…?”
“Well, yes, yes I do, but…”
“But what?” She stared at him, trying to read his sudden reluctance. “Is it me? Someone else?”
“No! It’s really not you. But… It’s linked to why I got chucked out of the Army. You see…” Oh, he hated this. Having to ruin the mood with explanations, having always to throw his life story into the conversation before he could get beyond second base. Oh well. He took a deep breath. Here goes nothing. “It’s because I started life assigned female, and then I made the switch, but I didn’t tell them. Just signed up as a man.”
He froze again, waiting for her reaction as her shocked eyes roamed over his stubble, his jawline, the way his square shoulders and lean angular body filled out his T-shirt.
“NO!” she finally screamed, her voice bubbling with comical incredulity. “No! I don’t believe it! You’ve having me on!”
“… Is the right answer!” Filch burst out, his shoulders slumping with relief that she hadn’t twigged before. “Yeah, it’s true. I’m a bloke now, but I wasn’t always.”
“But… How did you get into the Army?”
As briefly as he could, Filch explained how a cadre of trusted squaddie pals had had his back. They’d got him a fake passport in the ‘correct’ gender, made sure he ‘passed’ his medicals, took care that none of the other guys had a chance to see him starkers. Filch had absolutely loved it in the Army; structure, order, purpose, a sense of finally fitting in. When he’d gone back under enemy fire to bring back Macheath, the top brass couldn’t have been happier. For a few days, they treated him like his backside was the world’s only source of solar power. Then a green-eyed someone had ratted him out, and a stunned Filch had been summoned into an office, informed of an offence called ‘falsification of application’, and forthwith dismissed.
Polly’s jaw was slack with disbelief. “But that’s awful! You saved a man’s life!”
“Yeah, well. Military priorities. So with that on me record, didn’t have much choice but to work for your Dad.”
“I had no clue,” she continued, musing. “I really never did. And I’ve known you all this while… Makes no difference, if that’s what you’re worried about. You’re just as much of a bloke as you ever were.”
“Another right answer,” Filch murmured, relaxed and grinning now. “You must be killer at pub quizzes. So, where’s this place you want to go?”
She didn’t tell him at first, but simply shrugged off her leather jacket and offered it to him without a word. Numbly, he took it and wrapped himself in its warmth, stammering his thanks until she laid a single finger over his mouth and smilingly indicated that no conversation was necessary. Taking his hand in hers she led him off the pier, back onto the esplanade. They strolled in dreamlike silence along the coastal nightscape, past the twisted tarmac and scattered debris that loomed from the shadows; past the black-glass sea which seethed at the edge of the beach, casting its pale toothed wedding-veils onto the rocks and shingle.
It was only when he saw their intended destination that Filch was shocked into speech.
“Blimey!!” he gaped, as they crossed the deserted four-lane highway. “You wanna stay there?”
In front of them stood a massive white Victorian wedding-cake of a hotel, its seven tiers of balconied windows towering above them: its broad plaster front was flanked by two thin towers, and the whole thing shone with halogen radiance against the darkness. A semi-circle of driveway indicated the shallow marble steps which led up to the double doors of the entrance hall. From within, they could see warm amber lights and hear the tinkling of a jazz piano against well-oiled chatter. Clearly this was where the rich and powerful gathered to congratulate themselves for surviving the end of the world.
“It’s quite stylish inside, sweetheart. You’ll like it.”
“But – you know why they call it ‘The Grand Hotel’?”
“’Cause it costs that much to stay here?” Polly winked at him. “Not if you’re a Peachum, it doesn’t. Stays are free for us. Ma thrashed out an agreement with the manager.”
“You mean she gave the manager a thrashing ‘till he agreed?”
“Probably. Coming in?”
Five minutes later, Filch sat, stunned, on a sleek silk-canopied double-bed in a room that absolutely reeked of money. Lustre was everywhere: the Art Deco lamps, the tall heavy silver-brocade curtains, the gentle sinking of his shoes into a carpet plush as velvet. It was like waking up in a palace to find that he was a Lord of the Realm.
Except he wasn’t. He was a pathetic failure who couldn’t save the lives that actually mattered, and pretty soon Polly was going to wake up from her self-delusion and feel a deluge of sickening regret. She’d only dragged him here from a need to fill the sudden hole in her life with someone else. Loneliness, trying to convince itself it was something more. If it went any further, she’d find out just how lousy a substitute for Macheath he was.
He couldn’t bear the thought of her contempt. He shouldn’t have let it go on as far as it had. Why the Hell would someone so gorgeous waste her time with him?
Hopping off the bed, he almost got as far as the door when Polly emerged from the shining pink-marble temple that was the en-suite bathroom, her hair in dripping wet tendrils and a monogrammed white towel draped across her shoulders.
“Going somewhere, sweetheart?” The note of pain in her voice made him wince.
“Polly… You really sure you want me here?”
Again, she didn’t bother with words: instead, she walked to him, cupped his head in her hands and kissed him for the first time. With the press of her mouth upon his, all his doubts were cancelled out: he couldn’t stop himself gasping at her insistence and his own reaction. Her kiss tasted faintly of cigarettes and saltwater, acrid on the tongue, but for a few magical moments it made his head spin and his senses sing.
When they parted, he saw from Polly’s own dilated pupils and dazzled smile that the pleasure had been mutual.
“All right. I’ll stay,” Filch managed, as soon as he’d got his breath back. “If you absolutely insist.”
“I do. Onto that bed, sweetheart. Oh, and before you get on the bed… There’s something you have to promise me.”
She took a deep breath. “Never, never call me ‘Pretty Polly’. Ever. Or I will end you.”
“Oh, I’d never call you ‘pretty’,” Filch said slyly, waiting for the look of bewilderment to blossom on her face.
“Oh? You wouldn’t?”
“No way! I’d call you ‘Beautiful’.”
“Soppy beast,” Polly murmured, her lips curving into a smile as she kissed him again.
Filch awoke the next morning face-down in a soft heap of piled pillow and duvet. He was alone in the bed, and in the room: before her departure, Polly had pulled the heavy silver-brocade curtains ajar to let in the sunlight, so now Filch felt a long bar of pale heat falling across his bare shoulder-blades.
For a few moments he lay completely still on top of his soft starched-cotton nest, luxuriating in memories of the previous night and all its wonders. Then, reluctantly, he reached over to the side to pull on his clothes from the night before. In the huge Art Deco mirror he fixed his ruffled hair as best he could, then went in search of Polly.
She hadn’t gone far. The internal door on the left-hand side of the bedroom led to another much larger room; an elegant salon in blue and silver-gilt, lovely in the morning’s glow. Filch’s astonished eyes took in a polished oval dining-table and six chairs, a corner containing two sofas and an armchair, enough space and light for an extended family. But the room contained only one figure – Polly, in her gun-metal grey dress, sitting at an Edwardian writing-desk against the far wall.
With a stab of concern, he registered the look of strain and distress on her face. She did her best to hide it as soon as he entered, but the ghost of some deep worry still lingered behind her eyes. “Good morning,” she said, her voice far less warm than Filch had expected. “Sleep well?”
“Well, yeah!” he beamed. “You?”
“Mostly. And thanks for last night.”
Filch blinked, slightly confused. This coldness, this deliberate reserve, wasn’t at all how he’d expected Polly to behave. Not after the abandon of a few hours before. “Well, you were terrific, Poll. Um… Any chance I can see you again?”
She didn’t even meet his gaze. “Are you feeling a bit better now? You know, about things?”
Filch stared, unable to quite believe the display of frostiness to which he was being treated. How Polly was trying to distance herself, recasting a night of love as some kind of therapy session. What on earth had happened to the warm passionate girl of last night?
Face it, he heard Macheath snickering in his ear. You knew the truth last night, Filchy boy, but you ignored it. You were only ever a scratch for her itch, weren’t you? Poor Little Rich Girl needed you yesterday, but she sure as fuck doesn’t need you now. You went to bed with Cinderella, and you woke up with the pumpkin. Get over it.
As his heart crumbled to powder in his chest, he gulped and quietly replied, “Yeah. Lots better. Thanks.”
She rose to her feet from the writing-desk, all business. “Well, I’d recommend a shower of course, and then did you want breakfast? Buffet selection, downstairs, then a walk on the beach?”
“Yes, please. Thanks a lot. ” So that was it. Payment for his services with a full English breakfast and a few frilly pastries, and then by the afternoon he’d be alone again. Terrific.
But then something else struck him. A buffet breakfast, and a way that he could put a walk on the beach to some kind of use. “Poll… You wouldn’t happen to have a plastic bag, would you? Something that isn’t see-through?”
“I can ask for one at the desk. Why?”
An hour later, Polly was standing on the rubble beach that stretched eastwards beyond the Pier; she watched from a distance as Filch handed out wrapped filled brioche buns and bottles of water to the rough sleepers under the Victorian Iron Arches. He’d spent the entire breakfast making up the buns from the buffet, wrapping them in paper napkins, then ‘smuggling’ the small bundles into the bag by the side of his chair as the entire waiting-staff of the Grand Hotel pretended not to notice.
“Share the wealth,” he murmured as he reached Polly again, empty-handed but grinning with satisfaction.
“I suppose so,” Polly said, with that dark unreadable expression on her face. “Was all that to impress me?”
“No!” Filch felt stung at the very suggestion. “I do it whenever I get a chance at some free stuff. Try to share it out.”
“Why? It’s hardly permanent change, is it?”
Filch could sense Polly assuming her mask of coldness again. What was this, a wind-up? With effort, he pushed down his annoyance. “OK, so it’s not permanent! So what! It’s still worth doing. It’s like, no matter how bad things get, there’s always someone else whose life’s even worse than yours. Right? So the rule is, give them something if you can spare it. Right?”
“Right,” Polly repeated, staring closely at him; then she swung her head away, and looked out to sea. “Can we walk over there? There’s something I need to tell you. Privately.”
“What is it?” Filch asked, as soon as they’d reached the edge of the shoreline and the hiss and sigh of the waves could mask their voices. “Anything I can do?”
“I doubt it,” she sighed, and turned to face him with resignation in her eyes. “There’s no easy way of saying this... As of today, you don’t have a job, and I don’t have a home. I phoned Dylan Noir before you woke up, and he says Ma and Da caught a flight to Argentina last night. I wasn’t invited.”
As her voice shook, Filch reached for her hand. “Look, don’t worry! They had to dodge the cops. I'm sure they’ll send for you, once the heat has died down...”
“Are you kidding? Did you miss the bit last night where Ma completely lost it, and tried to empty an AK-47 into me?”
“She did what??”
“Oh right, you did miss that! Anyway, she can’t shoot for toffee, I’m fine, but that’s not the point… From what Dylan said, sounds like Da’s still with her. Forgave her for trying to shoot me; that’s what really hurts. Perhaps I inherited the ‘doormat gene’ from him.” As Filch tried to speak again, she lifted her palm as if to smack the argument down. “No! No way. Even if they did send me a plane ticket, I wouldn’t go.”
“Well, OK, but you’ve still got your home – “
“No, I haven’t. Dylan said Chief Inspector Lockit and his men are crawling all over our house right now. Apparently they’ve seized it under ‘Proceeds of Crime’ laws. Police are helping themselves to our stuff as we speak.”
“No. It’s true. So, what happens next? Any ideas?”
“Oh Polly, no…” Not this, he thought. Not this as well as everything else. Her strange loveless mood that morning made a horrible kind of sense now. She’d seemed cold, artificial, almost robotic, but then how could anyone be expected to cope with all that at once? It was as if something had decided she hadn’t suffered enough; as if some invisible and malicious force were applying torture after torture, to locate the exact point at which she’d break.
Well, Polly wasn’t alone in this. Not anymore.
“Please don’t worry,” he heard himself saying, trying to marshal some fragments of hope to fight off the horrible curdling silence. “You could stay at my place, if you like? It’s not quite The Grand, but you can have my bed and I’d sleep on the sofa if you want, I don’t mind… You can use my phone, and if you want to go stay with your other family, I can buy you a train ticket? Lend you some cash? Oh please don’t cry, Polly. Please don’t cry…”
Her shoulders were shaking silently now, despite his desperate attempts at consolation. She moved, almost slumped, straight into his waiting arms; reaching up a hand to wipe the tears from her face, she kept her head pressed against his chest.
“Sweetheart, can you forgive me?” he heard her saying softly.
“Nothing to forgive.”
“Well, there is… Because there’s something I didn’t tell you.” She raised her face to his, and whilst her eyes were red-raw from weeping, her lips were smiling. The effect was quite startling: quite grotesque, as if the masks of Tragedy and Comedy had been smushed together, so that tearful eyes met grinning mouth.
Filch opened his mouth to speak, but again she lay a single finger against his lips. Everything she’d told him was true, but there was one small detail she’d neglected to mention. Ever since the age of seventeen Polly, the mousy little mathematician, had been in charge of the family’s business accounts. Every Friday her father had handed her the proceeds for Peachum Holdings, and every Monday her mother had handed her an amount that was four times as much again. Every month, Polly had obediently tallied up the amounts and stored it all in the safe.
But it had been disturbing, how much her parents had managed to squander. Regularly the safe would be opened and its contents plundered for random and meaningless treats. A leopardskin-pattern designer sofa and the latest Vulgari ruby-and-diamond choker for Ma; a speedboat and an unsuccessful racehorse for Da; five-star holidays in France, New York, the Azores... Hundreds of thousands gurgling merrily down the plughole, whilst Polly squirmed under the persistent dread that these good times couldn’t last. That one day, the Peachums would encounter something fearful and unnegotiable, and when they did they’d have no reserve funds to fall back on.
So Polly had started siphoning off a small percentage of the proceeds, rewriting the account books to make the sums balance. Nothing major: five to fifteen percent most times, a little more if she could manage it. Five years of savings, funnelled to a discreet high-interest investment account at the ultra-posh Cahoots Bank in London. A nest-egg: a top-secret rescue plan for her parents, should the worst ever happen. How proud they’d be of their little girl, when that day came!
Except now her parents had vanished without a word, leaving their little girl to fend for herself. They had the Peachum Millions, the title deeds to the house and whatever else they’d been able to stuff into their luggage… But Polly had a London bank account under her own name, whose contents, it would seem, were now entirely hers.
“Two point seven million, last I looked,” Polly finished casually.
“Right. I see.” Numbly, Filch looked down at the broken fragments of stone beneath his feet. “So that’s why Mac was suddenly so keen on wedding-bells. I had wondered.”
“But I never told him, I swear!” Polly continued. “He never knew! At the start, I wasn’t going to touch it for our getaway – it was Ma and Da’s money, not mine – but when Mac was in jail, I thought I’d use it to bribe Lockit into setting him free. I thought it was worth it, to save his life. So I ran there to tell Mac about my brilliant plan to save him… And I found him with Lucy, didn’t I?” She knuckled the last tears out of her eyes. “Such a little fool. Me, not her. Me.”
“Nah. Not you. Out of everyone, looks like I’m the prize numpty ‘round here.” As Polly looked up in shock, Filch turned his back, hunched his shoulders and stalked off across the beach.
“Sweetheart? Sweetheart, please wait!” He heard the sound of Polly stumbling across the shingle, the bleak chiming of the rocks under her shoes as she ran to catch him up. “Filchy, please don’t go – “
“You just played me, Polly!” he shouted, spinning round to face her, uncaring of how she flinched before his anger. “All that long spiel you gave me! You made me think you hadn’t a bleedin’ penny, just to see what I’d do!! My heart was breaking for you, breaking into pieces and all along it was a game? You think it’s OK to manipulate people? Well it’s not!”
“Sweetheart, was I supposed to tell you about the two million right away? I’ve been burned before, I had to check –“
“What made you think you had the right to 'check'? There you were, pretending to cry – “
“But I was crying!!” That look on her face returned, that strange dazed look pitched between misery and elation. “Don’t you see, I was crying because I couldn’t believe what was happening… Last night, you drained all the hatred and pain out of me, you made me feel normal again – and just now, you volunteered to look after me, even when you thought I had nothing… Sweetheart, I was crying because you’re lovely! I was crying because I wish I’d seen you first. Before I fell for Mac. I mean it.”
“I don’t know what you mean anymore,” Filch muttered, but he didn’t move away.
“I saw Mac last night.” Her fingers gripped his arm tighter; her entire body was tense, pleading for him to listen. “It’s true. I woke up in the middle of the night and there he was at the foot of the bed, glaring down on us.”
“You mean he…?”
“No. He was just a shadow. I could see the edge of the mirror through him.”
Filch shuddered; Polly took a deep breath and continued.
“He didn’t say a word, but I had plenty to say to him. That he didn’t have any hold on me now. He divorced me at the gallows-foot, didn’t he? Finished. Over. And besides, he lied to me. So if he’s annoyed because I had my honeymoon night with another man – a better man than him – well, he ran out didn’t he? Didn’t want me, so now I don’t want him. I told him to go back to Hell and leave me alone. And he did.”
“You told him all that?”
“Well, not out loud,” she admitted, biting her lip. “You looked so sweet, I didn’t want to wake you. But I thought it. ‘Cause you were there beside me. And… And I really couldn’t bear it if you weren’t.”
She was holding out her arms now, begging for forgiveness. Ultimately, Filch wasn’t cold-hearted enough to deny her. “Don’t ever play me again, Poll,” he muttered, as he surrendered to her embrace. “‘Cause if you do, I’ll walk away.”
“I won’t lie to you, sweetheart,” she reassured him, venturing a kiss on his cheek. “I never will.”
They stayed so long on the shoreline, lost in each other, that the creeping tides took the opportunity to seize them by the ankles and drench their feet. Rueful, giggling, they clambered back up the beach towards the esplanade where city workers were already examining the rents in the tarmac and cordoning off the ‘no go’ areas for pedestrians.
“It’s gonna take a lot to put this place back together again,” Polly mused, her eyes on the tall concrete blocks in the distance: Peachum-build apartments, with their tell-tale pitted and pockmarked facades.
Filch shrugged. “It’s Humpty Dumpty. Can’t be done.”
“Oh it can… But not without huge amounts of lucre.” She turned her head in the direction of the council buildings, its shuttered windows and air of desolation. “Back when this place was the big shiny capital of ‘Having It Large’, people would do anything to be Mayor. But now we know it’s all diseased – the concrete, the pilchards, the sea itself – who’s going to clean up the mess?”
“Goodman would’ve. His missus, maybe?”
Polly nodded. “Exactly. If she’ll talk to me – if she can see past my surname – then I’ve got a proposition for her. Because two million is chicken-feed when it comes to building projects, but at least it’s a start.”
“Poll!” Filch said in wonder. “You mean you’re really gonna – ?“
Oh, she was. All Polly’s ideas were somewhat half-formed at present, a bit Utopian, but all the same she wouldn’t turn her back on the town, not after everything her parents had done to bleed it dry. In her mind’s eye was a vision of a stable little community where all the financial arteries circulated money back to the people. Nothing flashy, nothing that would attract the attention of the raiders and plunderers from London: just the slow, quiet healing of a wounded town. A place where the predatory elements would find no fresh pickings, and depart in disgust. A place where the good that was done would take place in the shadows, out of sight… Until one day, out of the blue, the townspeople would realize that no-one was struggling anymore.
“Widow Goodman’s the one to do it,” she finished. “Her husband always did the right thing, and she will too. Just like you, sweetheart.”
She’d meant to be kind, Filch knew it, but it still touched a sore nerve. “Yeah. Only trouble is, you do the right thing, then it comes back and punches you in the nose.”
“That again…” Her arm crept around his shoulders, consoling. “I know you blame yourself for saving Mac, but what he did afterwards? Wasn’t your fault.”
“Yes, it was.”
“Double wasn’t, and no returns.”
“It ain’t a joke, Poll!” When he sprang back, Polly seemed genuinely unnerved at his anger. Understandable: how was she to know the dull ache within him since yesterday evening, the wound that wouldn’t heal?
“Look, Poll,” Filch said finally, because she deserved an explanation for his outburst, “it wasn’t just about what Mac did to you, though God knows that was enough. It was… Well, you know Terry? Hangman Terry, at the execution? Well, he might just have been Hangman Terry to this town, but he was ‘Cousin Terry’ to me.”
Polly gasped, her eyes widening. “Oh, sweetheart – “
Filch turned his head away, forcing himself to remain dry-eyed. “Yeah, Terry was thick as mince, I know it, but he was family. And a really nice bloke. Didn’t deserve for Mac to trick him and string him up – and if I’d let Mac die of wounds, then Terry would still be here. So that’s all on me…”
That next instant, his words were lost in the kiss Polly was pressing upon his lips.
“Polly…” he managed, after Polly had finally allowed him to come up for air. “It’s all right. You don’t have to.”
“Yes I do.” Another kiss: this time a light touch of her lips to his forehead, like a blessing. “You have to concentrate on the good you meant to do, not all the stuff that spun out of your control. Or you’ll go mad.”
“Heh,” Filch nodded, and his face almost broke into a smile.
“And I’m sorry about Terry – really I am – but it still wasn’t your fault. If you’re going to trace it all the way back, there are a million ways it could have gone which were nothing to do with you. I mean, Mac wouldn’t even have been on that scaffold if Da hadn’t hired him to shoot Goodman. So if my Da never existed, then Mac wouldn’t have shot Goodman, and then Terry might still be alive. See?”
“But if your father never existed, then you wouldn’t be here,” Filch said slowly. “Nope. Really not too keen on that.”
“Thanks,” she replied, with a gleam of her old pure happiness in her eyes. “You know, Mac told me I ought to get shot of this rotten dump. Made me promise to go, but you know what? I’m going to stay. Can’t see why I should leave. Can you?”
This time, Filch grinned, taking in the solid blue vista of sky and sea behind her and the way the waves seemed to sing as they crashed upon the shore. “You might think different when you see my place. Like I said, it ain’t exactly The Grand.”
“It isn’t?” A demure little smile passed over Polly’s face as she glanced up at the hotel’s white tiered façade. “Well now… Let’s just see about that, shall we?”
The world never understood quite what had happened in the small coastal town that turbulent evening. All the photos of the massive skeletal dog, when developed, had come out horribly blurred. All the attempts to film it, or Macheath’s execution, had resulted in static footage and white noise. Journalists and paranormal experts had arrived in their dozens with the eager grins of fortune-hunters, all to return home with verdicts of “mass hallucination” or “unconvincing hoax”.
More of a miracle, though largely unreported, had been the inaugural actions of the town’s new Mayor, Ms Trisha Goodman. The three housing blocks constructed by Peachum Enterprises were tested, and found to be irredeemably riddled with concrete cancer. All would have to be brought down immediately, though this of course left 367 tenants, mostly families, with nowhere to live. So Mayor Goodman used her emergency powers to requisition the entire Grand Hotel as temporary accommodation for the displaced, until the new apartment blocks were constructed. The first to take up residence in the Grand were the eleven rough sleepers who had formerly been sheltering under the Victorian Arches.
The Grand Hotel now operated under an interim manager, a certain Mr Filch. Extraordinarily young-looking, but it couldn’t be denied he knew how to get things done. Meals, vehicle access, medical requirements, secure storage, hotel security: everything was structured and orderly, flowing without a hitch through his capable hands. Everyone thought the new manager was simply amazing – well, everyone apart from Chief Inspector Lockit, who took to hanging around the Hotel Lobby with his arms folded, his heavy brows furrowed in suspicion.
However, Lockit ultimately had bigger fish to fry than Les Peachum’s former gofer and his remarkable rise to prominence. What Lockit needed was a breakthrough that would land him a new post at Scotland Yard, and that might come with finding someone to prosecute for the pollution in the Peachum Pilchard Canning Plant. He’d even tried to drag Polly Peachum herself in for questioning, but Mayor Goodman made it quite clear that her Personal Assistant/Secretary was strictly off limits.
“If my dear Polly had been involved in any way, her parents would have taken her with them, wouldn’t they?” The Mayor’s argument might not have been entirely watertight, but beneath the force of her blue ironclad stare Lockit folded like a beach-chair. “Do let Polly get on with finding those ex-employees new jobs, Colin dear, and we’ll let Interpol locate Polly’s parents. Justice will out… Oh, and tell me: have you arrested that thieving little monkey yet? The one who’s teamed up with the seagulls at the seafront to mug tourists of their food?”
“Not yet, Your Worship.”
“Best get onto that then, hadn’t you? Off you pop. Oh, and do give my love to your charming daughter! What’s her name again?”
“Lucy, Your Worship.”
“And her child? Your grand-daughter?”
A muffled, indeterminate sound came from Lockit, almost as if he were choking on his own tongue.
“I’m sorry, Colin dear, I didn’t catch her name?”
“Heather, Your Worship. Her name is Heather.”
“Oh, yes of course! Such a delightfully Scottish name. So redolent of the bagpipes and the flooded glen, is it not?”
“Indeed, Your Worship.” And Lockit stalked from the Mayor’s office in a skirl of kilts and beetle-browed fury. Both the Mayor and her assistant waited until he’d slammed the door downstairs before giving vent to their full-bodied laughter.
Slowly, gradually, the town began to flesh over its scars. More rotten office blocks were demolished, more neglected brick warehouses given impressive make-overs. Polly’s purpose was to match the work to be done with the right people to do it: every person who moved from unemployment to a paid and fulfilling job was a victory, a candle’s pure light to push back against the darkness. After the Canning Plant was made safe again, it was re-purposed to pack local farm produce. With the profits, Goodman’s office hired marine biologists to devise the best way of correcting the water quality and re-introducing pilchard breeding areas. It might take a decade or more, but it could be done, and under Goodman’s management it would be.
Every Friday evening, Mayor Goodman made a solemn walk from her office, holding a bouquet of flowers. Her destination was the cemetery in Florence Place, where her late husband waited for her.
Flanking her were her two most trusted companions, Ms Peachum and Mr Filch. When they reached the cemetery they allowed the widow to enter alone, then stood outside in respectful silence, hand in hand, looking over the town’s skyline silhouetted against the glittering waves.
Life was so peaceful now; so unremarkable. So dull.
It was wonderful.