A Fistful of Serviettes (part one)
Ever been sat in a place so lifeless that you wished for a spontaneous gunfight? And then you’d break-out with the firepower and kick ass? This piece was first composed in my head whilst waiting for my fried-grease-and-chips in the Little Chef on the A14 (between J8 and J9, westbound) on a Friday evening. It was a very dull place.
My name’s Doc – Hickory Doc. You don’t need to know my middle name. I’m a detective for Northamptonshire Police, Special Investigations unit. I am licensed to kill … and to sell intoxicating liquor for consumption on or off the premises. I’m not sure why I have that one. Some mixup in HR that I’ve never bothered to mention.
I sat alone in the roadside diner – just me, my aching muscles and a headache that rumbled with all the promise of a full-blown riot. Rows of tired, uninhabited tables were illuminated by insufficient lighting. The decor seemed to echo the menu – simple and unimaginative, with a side-order of lacklustre. Onion rings extra.
I was the only customer, which suited me just fine. Under an overcast sky, the early-morning world drove by my window. Barely-conscious commuters battled for tarmac with heavy goods vehicles, all bound for the faraway exotic lands of Felixstowe. I paid them little attention. To sit and stare at nothing was a rare treat; to be enjoyed like a good book, or silence. I intended to savor it as long as I could.
In the quiet of the diner my only company was a dead-eyed, plastic, illuminated chef that hung from the ceiling, and a dead-eyed, plastic, bored waitress that propped-up the counter. Her badge claimed she was called Linda; but then, it also claimed that she would be happy to serve me (despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary) so I wasn’t sure I could trust anything that badge had to say. Its testimony sure as hell wouldn’t stand up in court.
Linda had the face of an angel, but a body made for sinning. That sin was gluttony. I could read her figure like a criminal record; her file clearly said “repeat offender”.
I had ordered my fried breakfast a good fifteen minutes ago, but I could tell by Linda’s general pace and urgency that she was paid by the hour … and not enough to warrant any polite and helpful demeanor. Trying to catch her eye and look pointedly hungry had proven futile, so I gave up. My train of thought left the station down a different track.
It isn’t widely advertised that Northamptonshire has a “Special Investigations” unit – we’re not the happy, friendly face of modern policing. We’re not photographed in the local paper teaching kids to cross the road and we don’t rescue kittens from trees. We only meet the community at the village fête if a turf-war breaks out between rival chapters of the Women’s Institute. Gunfights in marquees can be a messy business, and someone has to be there afterwards to clean up all the blood and jam.
Homicides are our bread-and-butter work, but we also cover narcotics, organised crime, UFO sightings, unlicenced bingo and poor grammar in public signage.
Of the entire of Northamptonshire, we spend most of our time in Kettering. This is where the scum of middle-England meet; bacterial growth of a thousand different fungi, cultivated in a petri-dish with a two-mile radius.
Who knows why they come here? I often wonder. Maybe it has something to do with all the office suppliers and conference centres, sprouting here like corrugated-iron and breeze-block mushrooms growing on a rotting carcass. Get any more than a handful of stationery salesmen together in a Travelodge for the weekend and you can be damn sure that the gambling and the hookers and the stabbings won’t be far behind. There’s many a chalk-outline in a Kettering backalley that would be more appropriate if daubed in Tipp-Ex. Many a man becomes a corpse here at the business-end of a complimentary ball-point.
They’re all here: the shysters, the charlatans, the con-artists, the down-and-outs, the Post-It Note dealers. The half-cocked gangsters: the ones who fancied themselves as crime lords but weren’t quite tough enough to make it big in England’s Babylon of Milton Keynes. And the innocents: those poor saps who went looking for the promised land of milk and honey but lost their faith when they saw Peterborough.
Who really understands this place? Well, God presumably. He and I have never really been on speaking terms (he occasionally gets a nod when I dodge a bullet) but I’d still like to know which Mysterious Way of His made Kettering, and which Wonder it will perform. More likely He’s condemned the place; given it up as a bad job, but not got around to organising the earthquake to rectify His mistake.
I sighed, and resting my elbows on tea-stained Formica, massaged my eyebrows with thumb and forefinger in that L-shape familiar to anyone who has sat an exam, or any office worker with a Monday-morning hangover. A forlorn attempt to push the headache to somewhere around the back. It didn’t work. I stared into my coffee, and willed it to turn into something more palatable before I sipped it. That didn’t work either.