AND I LOOKED, AND BEHOLD A PALE HORSE
‘So, apparently there’s been a few cases of bubonic plague about,’ said Keanu. ‘One in China, a kid died in Mongolia, a bunch of squirrels in Colorado.’
The men of the Millport barbershop were standing at the window, in traditional formation, clutching mugs of coffee and morning pastries, looking out on a blustery day on the firth of Clyde.
‘Sounds very on-brand for 2020,’ said Barney, taking a bite from a cinnamon-frosted Bavarian apple turnover.
‘However, apparently they can treat the plague with antibiotics these days. The case in China, for example, got better.’
‘Arf,’ muttered Igor darkly. Igor did not trust the plague.
‘Ah,’ said Barney. ‘That’s a bit disappointing for the plague. It’s not what it used to be.’
‘Yep,’ said Keanu. ‘It’s like a footballer who’s lost a step, or a former leading actor who’s consigned to playing bit-parts as a dying grandpa.’
‘Late career Brando,’ said Barney.
‘Denis Law when he went back to Man City,’ said Keanu.
‘Dominic Raab after he’s woken up in the morning,’ muttered Igor, and even though all that crossed his lips was the word arf, the others laughed along with him.
Everyone hates Dominic Raab.
In unison they took a drink of coffee, then Keanu indicated the great wide world beyond with a casually gestured mug and said, ‘And the Chinese are claiming there’s a new virulent pneumonia sweeping Kazakhstan, and then there was the brain-eating amoeba in Florida. It’s getting pretty wild out there.’
‘I expect these things have always been around,’ said Barney, ‘we’re just paying more attention now because of Covid. It’s like everything really. When something’s in the news, suddenly it seems to be everywhere, but most if the time it’s because we’ve not been paying attention. So, here we are, 2020, in the middle of a pandemic, and shitty life-threatening illnesses are all the rage. We can only be a week or two away from the discovery of a new super-midgie. They don’t just suck your blood, they eat the flesh off your face. Go for a walk in the west highlands in August, and come back little more than a skeletal frame, the flesh stripped from your bones.’
‘Doesn’t that happen already?’ said Keanu.
‘Only when it rains.’
Igor smiled grimly, the men of the shop ate and drank, and outside the gulls whirled and dived in the wind, as another day of weather rolled in upon the land.
Late morning and things were beginning to pick up. The menfolk of the town of Millport were abroad, both Barney and Keanu were cutting hair, and there were a couple of customers waiting on the bench. In a familiar attempt to induce a soporific air, Barney had turned on Radio 3, currently playing William Byrd’s iconic I Weep, You Weep, We All Weep, For The Lord Does Not Exist, And Even If He Did He’d Likely Tell Us All To Fuck Off, We’ve Made Such An Arse Of Everything.
Barney was currently dispensing a fairly straightforward Premier League No. 7 cut to a young lad who looked like he might have been a footballer, but who everyone on the island knew couldn’t kick a ball for biscuits. Nevertheless, word was he’d just signed a £20k/week deal with Rangers. Keanu, meanwhile, was giving Old Man McGuire his weekly Rasputin cut, something of a challenge given that Old Man McGuire didn’t really have very much hair to speak of.
The morning newspapers were stacked in an unruly pile on the bench, though both waiting customers were currently looking at their phones, leaving the Telegraph – headline, Cummings Sticks Sedwill’s Decapitated Head On Spike Outside Cabinet Office In Warning To Civil Service – unread. Those beneath it – the Mail, with EU Threatens To Fill In The Channel And Build A Wall In Latest Escalation, the Express, headline Brexit Bonanza As Brits Look Forward To Free Misery, the Sun, with Lads Take To The Air To Throw Up Over Dresden As War With Germany Looms, the Guardian, headline, Plastic Now Growing Naturally On Exmoor As Ponies Choke On Tesco Finest Pâté Packaging, the Star with Love Island Babe Mistakenly Marries Covid Virus In Late Night Booze Shock, and the National, headline Holyrood Classifies Westminster As Banana Republic, Johnson Pays Mate’s PR Firm £50m To Respond – remained similarly untouched.
Old Man McGuire caught Keanu’s eye in the mirror, a grim look on his face, a single eyebrow raised suspiciously.
‘See they English?’ said McGuire.
Uh-oh, thought Barney.
‘What about them?’
‘The fuck are they doing?’
‘Hard to say, Mr McGuire. What are you talking about?’
McGuire straightened his shoulders, his familiar prerequisite to starting a bit of a rant, and Keanu lifted the scissors away from his head just in time, before the movement resulted in the loss of an ear.
‘Saw an opinion poll a couple of days ago. The Tories were eight points ahead or something. I mean, who are these idiots?’
‘Who are the Tories, or who are the people who’d still vote for them?’
‘The voters. I mean, I get the politicians. They’re bastards. All of them. Gove, Johnson, Raab, Hancock, Patel… all bastards. But they ran for government on the basis of being bastards, so obviously now that they’re there, they’re still bastards and they’re going to continue to be bastards. They lie, they grift, they’re completely unapologetic about everything, they do whatever the fuck they want. It’s who they are.’
‘Well then, aren’t they just giving the people what they voted for?’
‘Aye, I get that, weird though it is, but look at them now. Now, faced with an actual crisis. They’re clearly utterly incompetent. They’re hopeless, and they don’t give a fuck. So not only are they bastards, they’re useless bastards. And yet… still miles ahead in the polls.’
He paused, he looked at Keanu with his eyebrows raised, then he said, ‘Doesn’t make any sense.’
‘Suppose not, Mr McGuire,’ said Keanu.
A moment, the shop held its breath to see if anyone was going to come to the Tories’ defence, before inevitably no one did. Barney, of course, did not encourage political discussion, but he knew Old Man McGuire needed to get things off his chest and had nowhere else to do it, so he saw it as something of a public service. He also knew that at least this was safe ground. No one was ever going to come to the defence of the Tories. If the old man was about to head off on an SNP tangent, he might have to step in.
‘And that cunt Gove, what was that all about?’ said McGuire, just as Keanu was about to resume the cut.
‘What about him, Mr McGuire?’
‘They let him go on TV at the weekend and say there’s no need to mandate masks, he says some shite about the public having common sense, which clearly no bastard has or they wouldn’t have voted for that shower of imbeciles in the first place, and then the next day the government cut the bastard off at the legs and said the complete opposite.’
He looked seriously at Keanu in the mirror, as though he may have had an answer, and kept on looking, forcing him to give one.
‘They were testing the water, and it turned out the water thought they were morons?’ suggested Keanu. ‘Or Gove is having a bitchfight with Johnson, and that was him going rogue. Or they had no intention of introducing masks until Gove said they shouldn’t, so they just did it to make him look stupid?’
‘Ha! That didn’t take much.’
Keanu smiled, then made a move with the scissors, indicating the need to continue the cut. When there are people waiting, the experienced barber knows not to allow the current customer to animatedly talk for too long.
‘I’ll get on, Mr McGuire,’ said Keanu, ‘but don’t let me stop you. You just need to keep your head still.’
‘S’all right, son,’ said McGuire. ‘I’m finished.
Igor and Barney gave each other a wee smile. McGuire was never finished.
Keanu started cutting again, after McGuire had slouched back down into his seat, his chin not so far from resting on his chest.
‘And see that useless fuckwomble Raab…’ he said after a few moments.
‘I’ve had enough politics for today,’ said Barney.
They were taking one of their well-earned breaks across the road, leaning on the white promenade wall, looking out on the waves and the rocks and the gulls, breathing in the air of an early afternoon on the west coast of Scotland.
‘Aye, I suppose,’ said Keanu. ‘Some of the old fellas, though, you’ve just got to let them spout, right?’
‘You do, but that’ll do it for today. The next time someone talks politics, you need to start on about your new book. Drum up some interest.’
Igor nodded, while downing a large swallow of tea. ‘Arf,’ he added, although he may in fact just have been burping.
‘I’m just not sure about the title. Thought I should pin it down before I start spreading the word. Untitled Eleventh Book by Keanu MacPherson doesn’t really have much of a ring to it.’
‘What have you got so far?’
‘The Investigations of Inspector Ignatius Dupont, And His Startling Discoveries At Malbury Manor.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney.
He took a drink of tea, watched as an artic tern swooped down upon the waves and came away clutching a baby coelacanth in its beak.
‘You’re going for that nineteenth century vibe?’
‘Sherlock Holmes kind of a thing?’
Away to their right a small freighter, recently returned from the East, edged into view from behind Wee Cumbrae, and for a moment they watched its distant, steady progress. Aboard was a serial killer named Bob, another veteran merchant seaman, currently possessed by evil Balinese spirit Rangda, and a cage full of live chickens, each one infected with a deadly virus unknown to science.
It was early days, but when the ship docked in Clydebank it was going to make a hell of an episode of Scooby Doo.
‘What’s that then?’ asked Barney, who wasn’t really up with literary fiction trends.
‘Aye,’ said Barney. ‘Steampunk.’
‘That’s where you set something in Victorian times, but they have more advanced tech than they actually had in those days.’
‘And it’s steam driven?’
‘It can be, but you know, it’s just a name. Sometimes it’s clockwork. Or, you know, since people are just making this shit up, anything really.’
‘Where does the punk come into it?’ asked Igor, beneath the cover of the word arf.
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu, and he took a moment to savour his tea.
‘It just sounds edgy?’ said Barney.
‘So, there’s not really any punk involved?’
‘Well, possibly not. But there might be.’
‘Victorian-literature-with-added-steam-tech doesn’t have the same ring to it, I suppose,’ said Barney.
‘Doesn’t roll off the tongue.’
‘The title of your book doesn’t really say steampunk, to be honest. It says cosy mystery for Sunday afternoon television, where all the murders are clean cut, and no one really gets upset for the victims.’
‘What particular steam technology does Inspector Dupont discover at Malbury Manor?’
‘I haven’t written that bit yet, but I was thinking it would be an army of steam robots that kidnap children, suck out their skull cavity and implant steam brains, then send the children running amok amongst the citizens of London.’
‘All under the direction of the mad scientist, Dr Blackarrow.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor, nodding approvingly.
‘Yep, me too,’ said Barney. ‘Sign me up. But you’ve got to do something about the title. What else have you got?’
‘The Incredible Dr Blackarrow And The Robots From Mars?’
‘Are the robots from Mars?’
‘Needs some finessing.’
‘Slaughter Manor And The Doomed Children Of The Netherworld?’
‘The Malbury Manor Mind Meld Massacre?’
Igor gave him a side-eye. People usually moved on quickly after one of Igor’s side-eyes.
‘Blackarrow And The Slaughter Army Brain Suck Bloodbath?’
‘I’d stick with Untitled Eleventh Book for the moment,’ said Barney. ‘Maybe a title’ll come to you along the way.’
‘Aye, you’re probably right.’
Keanu, seemingly happy to have all his ideas cast aside, knowing deep inside that none of them had been right in the first place, took a drink of tea and looked contentedly out across the grey-blue waves, south towards the mainland.
‘Maybe,’ he said after a while, as no one else seemed to be talking, ‘we could spice things up a little by putting punk in the title of the shop. Give it a bit of an edge.’
‘Wouldn’t work,’ said Barney. ‘A punk hairstyle’s an actual thing. You put punk in the name of the barbershop, and most of our customers would stop coming. You attach it to the word steam and stick it on a book, no one knows what you’re talking about. You can make shit up and say, look, this is a thing. And if someone says, hang on a second, it’s completely different from that other thing over there that also says it’s steampunk, you don’t have to give a shit, because it’s fiction. You’re literally making stuff up.’
‘Hmm,’ said Keanu. ‘I suppose.’
He paused, together they looked out to sea, as the Clydebank-bound freighter moved out of sight.
‘Perhaps there’s another word we could put in the name,’ said Keanu.
‘We’ll think on it,’ said Barney after a while.
And His Name That Sat On Him Was Death
The shop door opened at three-fifteen, ushering in a blast of unexpected cold air. Given the day outside, this could only mean one thing; that the newly arrived customer was bringing with him an air of such evil, that he chilled the space around him.
The Prime Minister’s Chief Advisor was in the building. Or Death, as he is known in the corridors of Westminster. Durham was obviously not the limit of his travels.
He paused to look around the shop. At that moment there was just the one customer – Barrington the Blacksmith, currently receiving a Lorenz Helmschmied ’77 from Keanu – while Igor and Barney were standing at the window, looking out on the world, drinking their seventeenth cup of tea of the day.
Everyone looked at Death, shivering as they did so. The feeling of malevolence was palpable. He looked them in the eye in turn, taking a moment to burrow down inside their souls, shivered himself as he looked at Igor, as Igor took Death’s evil and bounced it back at him, and then finally settled on Barney.
‘You’re Barney Thomson,’ he said.
Barney didn’t reply. He had nothing to say to Death. He had nothing to say to any of these people. Every few weeks they would send someone to request his presence in London to cut the Prime Minister’s hair. Barney had no intention of answering the call. Bad things happened when he went to London.
For that matter, bad things happened when he stayed in Millport, but it was, at least, home.
‘Can you confirm you ident –’ began Death, but then he was cut off by Keanu.
‘I’m Barney,’ he said.
Death looked harshly at him, his lips curling into a scowl.
The shop held its breath, wondering just how far Death would be prepared to take this. As he was about to speak again, Barrington the Blacksmith cut him off once more.
‘I’m Barney,’ he said enthusiastically.
‘Fuck’s sake,’ muttered Death.
‘Arf!’ said Igor, straightening himself as much as he could, and Barney and Keanu smiled grimly, knowing that Igor had said I’m Barney and so’s my wife.
Death understood neither Igor nor Monty Python references, and he looked once more at Barney, his eyes narrowing with serpentine deceit.
‘I’m Barney,’ said Barney. ‘What can I get you?’ he added, indicating the barber’s chair with a nod.
‘I don’t need a haircut,’ said Death. ‘I’m here on behalf of the government.’
‘Very nice of Nicola to send you,’ said Barney. ‘What seems to be the trouble?’
‘Funny,’ he said. ‘Very funny, Mr Thomson.’
‘I’m from Westminster,’ said Death, aware he was being played, but somehow unable to do anything about it.
‘Right,’ said Barney. ‘Whatever. Who are you and what d’you want?’
Nice, thought Keanu. Who are you? He managed to keep the smile off his face, though, to be honest, it’s actually quite hard to smile in the presence of Death at any time.
‘You know who I am, Mr Thomson, and you know what I’m going to get. So why don’t we cut out the middle stage where we argue needlessly, you pack a bag, and you come with me to London?’
Barney folded his arms. He wasn’t the best actor, but he could do confused disdain with aplomb, particularly when he wasn’t actually having to act the disdain part of it.
‘I have no idea who you are. If you want something, cut out the threatening bullshit, stop speaking in code, and just spit it out. Who do you work for?’
Death twitched again, this time a little more violently.
‘I don’t work for anyone,’ he spat. ‘The Prime Minister, who I’m sure you have heard of, works for me.’
‘Right,’ said Barney. ‘What’s the problem?’
‘Jesus,’ muttered Death, looking at the floor for a moment. As he did so, he couldn’t help noticing it was probably the cleanest, most beautifully polished shop floor he’d ever seen in his life.
Dispatching that mildly positive thought to the dark horizons, he looked up again at Barney, having briefly wrestled with the concept he was being made fun of, and accepting he just had to crack on with the job. He was due back in London in ninety minutes, in order to humiliate Matt Hancock in front of his staff. To be fair to Matt, he humiliated himself every other day, so it was hardly necessary, but he liked to keep an appointment.
‘The Prime Minister is flailing. He has been given the second top job in the country, and he is out of his depth…’
‘Wait, is the top job the Queen, or you?’ asked Keanu, and Barney had to stop himself smiling.
‘It’s me, you idiot,’ snapped Death without looking away from Barney. ‘Yes, we’re still ahead in the polls, thanks to the voters being absolute fucking morons, but eventually they’ll catch on. A year from now, ninety per cent of them will want Starmer as PM, and ninety percent of whatever this country’s called will want whatshername. Thank God for Trump and Bolsonaro, at least Boris occasionally gets to look moderately competent in comparison.’
‘Nope,’ said Barney, ‘he looks equally inept. But really, you’re talking a lot and not saying anything. So why don’t we just get to it, you ask me to come to London and cut his hair, and I tell you to fuck off?’
‘I’m not asking,’ said Death slyly, rancid, weaselly artifice dripping from every syllable.
Barney held his gaze for a moment, but wasn’t of a mind to get into some bullshit testosterone alpha rut-fest. He downed his cup of tea, pondered it for a moment, then said to Igor and Keanu, ‘Another one?’
‘Arf!’ said Igor enthusiastically, often distracted by a cup of tea, like Scooby by a snack.
‘Smashing,’ said Keanu.
‘Mr Barrington?’ asked Barney, heading towards the rear of the shop.
‘Ooh, that’d be lovely, Mr Thomson, thank you very much,’ said Barrington the Blacksmith, respectfully.
‘Excellent. Just be a minute.’
He walked to the back, then, just before going through to the small tea point/store room/operations centre, he turned and looked at Death, who was still eyeing him angrily.
‘Sorry,’ said Barney, ‘didn’t mean to be rude. But you were just leaving. You can see yourself out.’ A pause, then he added, ‘You can see the door all right?’
Death twitched again, the bitter lips pressed tightly together, the eyes sparkling fire and hatred.
‘This isn’t over, Mr Thomson,’ he said.
The words oh, yes it is were on Barney’s lips, but he managed to stop himself before the descent into puerility, then he walked quickly across the shop, whispered something into Death’s ear, the face of the most corrupt and vicious special advisor of the age twisted and curled, the eyes stared vacantly across the shop at an indistinct spot, and then Barney said, ‘So, as I said before, you can fuck off,’ and then he turned away and walked through to the back.
Late afternoon, something of a chill of evening in the air. Somewhere, beyond the horizon, there was an early hint of autumn, and here it was, carried on the wind across the sea. July might seem early for a hint of autumn, but remember, this is a Clyde coast holiday resort, where winter starts in September.
Barney, Igor and Keanu were standing at the window, drinking what was now the four hundredth and fifty-third cup of tea of the day. The Closed sign would not be going up for another half hour or so, but the day had that particular feel to it. There would be no more customers.
‘What did you say to that guy, by the way?’ asked Keanu. ‘Fair seemed to put his gas at a peep.’
‘Oh, I told him that the last time I was in London, and Johnson was Mayor at the time, I went to a party attended by lots of senior Tories, and that I witnessed Johnson, blind drunk, having sex with an alpaca.’
Keanu laughed, smiled at Igor, who was at the very least not looking at all surprised, then said, ‘Did you actually?’
Barney answered with a raised eyebrow.
‘Ah, so no photographs?’
‘Well, I claimed to have photographs,’ said Barney. ‘The most informative point here is that, while I don’t really think he believed me, he obviously considered it not entirely out of the question.’
Keanu let out a low whistle, shaking his head as he did so.
‘I don’t know, boss,’ he said. ‘He doesn’t strike me as the kind of guy you want to piss off.’
‘May be,’ said Barney, ‘but on the other hand the only way not to piss him off would be to accompany him to London, and then I’d be stuck in the blond buffoon’s entourage, at the beck and call of the laziest politician of his, or any other, time. So, what’s a chap to do?’
‘Arf,’ muttered Igor, darkly.
‘I know,’ said Barney.
‘Maybe you should just disappear for a while,’ said Keanu. ‘Until all this blows over. They reckon he’ll have chucked it by Christmas, and you’re probably safe from Priti Patel asking you to cut her hair.’
‘Hmm,’ said Barney. ‘Let’s wait and see what happens.’
‘Arf,’ said Igor again.
Igor sensed danger the way the Tory government sensed an opportunity to give one of their mates a £108m contract for facemasks.
‘Everything’ll be fine,’ said Barney, looking out across the waves.
Keanu nodded, Igor returned to grim silence.
None of them, meanwhile, believed that everything would be fine.
Up Above The Clouds, It Is Always A Blue Sky
Up above the clouds, on a government funded private jet, Death, the most powerful political operator in London since 1651, sat stony faced, staring out at the great blue yonder.
He didn’t like it when people said no to him. He didn’t like it when people told him to fuck off. And he didn’t like it when people lied.
That was his job.
There was a storm coming, and it was headed in the direction of Millport.
‘Fell deeds awake,’ thought Death. ‘Fire and slaughter. Spear shall be shaken, shield be splintered…’
‘Sir?’ said the sycophant sitting across the aisle.
‘Nothing,’ muttered Death, slumping further into his disenchantment.