Author: Paul House
Pages: 326

Trivial Pursuit (2004): CHAPTER ONE

CHAPTER ONE

 

In which Marlowe Philips and Beef Tea fail to notice the most important thing, as explained by Yannis Ritsos in his poem “The Main Thing”[1].

 

 

“It doesn’t look anything like me,” said Marlowe Philips, looking at the passport photograph.

The solid civil servant smiled surreptitiously and slipped the silver scissors into her drawer. “I wouldn’t worry about that,” she said. “Where are you going?”

“Hoping,” said Philips, looking sadly at the photograph of Charlie Drake.

“I beg your pardon?” The civil servant looked up at him from behind the pink antlers of her glasses.

“It’s in China,” said Philips.

“In that case,” she said, “You’ve got nothing to worry about. The Chinese think we all look the same anyway.”

Marlowe Philips took his passport and made his way to the door. There was a used nine-banded armadillo in the corner of the room near the waste-paper basket, but he didn’t notice. He just wanted to get out of Oklahoma as quickly as possible.

Beef Tea, his side-kick, was waiting for him at the bus-stop. He was cleaning his enormous horn-rimmed glasses and sucking noisily on a boiled sweet. Seeing Marlowe Philips approach, he put his glasses away in a leopard skin glasses-case and blinked.

“How’d it go?” he asked, gazing past Marlowe Philips into the middle distance, unable to see anything without his glasses.

Marlowe Philips nudged the passport towards him.

“What do you think?” he asked, showing Beef Tea the photograph.

Beef Tea screwed his eyes together to focus but could see nothing.

“A good likeness, you must be pleased. So many people have to put up with such terrible photos in their passport and it can be such an embarrassment.” Beef Tea coughed, a bubble of sticky sweet juice catching in his throat. “Are we going, then?” he asked.

“No,” said Marlowe Philips, who loved pretentious, figurative expressions.

Beef Tea waited patiently. He waited a long time. It reminded him of a novel by Balzac, but he couldn’t remember which one.

“We’re not staying here,” he guessed suddenly. “It would be a waste of a good passport.”

“No,” said Philips, who hated to repeat himself. He took a cigarette from behind Beef Tea’s ear and lit it thoughtfully. “But we’re not going to China. That was just a ploy to throw them off the scent.”

 

A man seemed to be watching them from the other side of the street. He was not a tall man, so he was standing on a stool. He was wearing a pink T-shirt and over the T-shirt a canary-yellow, linen jacket. Marlowe Philips felt certain that he had seen him before. Somewhere. He recognised the stool. It had been in the bar when they shot Spacey.

Philips turned to Beef Tea.

“See that man over there?” he said.

Beef Tea looked and saw a splurge. With difficulty he made out a pink and yellow lollipop.

“Sure do,” he said.

“What’s he doing now?” asked Philips, crushing the spent cigarette beneath his toe and unleashing a small stampede of red soldier ants from a crack in the pavement. Beef Tea tried to imagine.

“He’s just looking,” he suggested warily, after a prudent silence.

“No,” said Philips. “That’s where you’re wrong. He’s not just looking. He’s standing on a stool – and looking.”

Beef Tea sighed. That explained the lollipop. He had been about to say that the man was on a pogo-stick, but he had, fortunately, realised, in time, that that would have been ridiculous.

“The stool that killed Spacey,” said Philips menacingly.

Had he not feared for his false teeth and the more than distinct possibility of ejecting the boiled sweet, Beef Tea would have whistled.

“Oklahoma ain’t what it used to be,” he said, slipping into the vernacular.

Another bear of a man, who looked like John Steinbeck, but without the socialism, had joined the dwarf. Even with the stool, the dwarf had to stand on tip-toe to speak to Steinbeck.

“Spacey’s gone,” he said. “God’s pink-slipped him in a company downsize.” And laughed.

Lance, for that was Steinbeck’s name, looked down at the dwarf and frowned.

“Why do you always talk in riddles, Wilma?” he asked.

Wilma, so called because his mother had wanted a girl, (she had also wanted a taller child, but could do nothing about that) objected and said that he sometimes used proverbs.

“I sometimes use proverbs,” he said.

Lance shrugged.

On the other side of the street, Marlowe Philips was racking his brains and wrecking his lungs with another of Beef Tea’s Iranian cigarettes.

“Anchovies on toast,” he said finally.

“No, thank you,” said Beef Tea wistfully.

Philips wondered whether he chose to be obtuse. It would not have been the first time.

“Spacey was eating anchovies on toast when they shot him. He must have been onto something.”

Beef Tea nodded and found a half-sucked boiled sweet in the corner of his handkerchief. He popped it into his mouth. The sun beat onto the back of his neck, as hot as a bison’s bollocks. Beef Tea wiped the sweat from his face with the sticky handkerchief and moved from one thin leg to another uneasily.

“Sean Chivo,” said Philips. “The Irish Romanian. An anagram of anchovies.”

“Stoat,” suggested Beef Tea after a moment’s pause. “An anagram of toast.” And this time he dared to whistle.

“No,” said Philips. “Toast is just toast.”

Beef Tea was disappointed but was determined not to sulk.

“Paddy the Romanian,” said Beef Tea then. In the absence of any response from Marlowe Philips, Beef Tea began to hum a folk song from the Upper Volga[2] under his breath, but before he got to the chorus Philips cut him off.

“We’ve got to find out what Spacey knew. Then we’ll know why he was killed.”

Wilma and Lance watched as the bus drew up, stopped and pulled away again. Marlowe Philips and Beef Tea were still standing at the bus-stop.

“Clever,” said Lance in appreciation.

Wilma had packed his stool onto his back and was already strutting off through the park that gave onto the main road. Lance turned away from Philips and Beef Tea and followed him, stopping only to buy an apricot sundae from a left-handed travelling salesman on a bike.

Before it got to the next corner the bus exploded in a pungent ball of smoke and flame.

 






[1] “In spite of his insistent observations about the door,/intensely red on the blind façade, we knew/he had omitted the main thing. Opposite,/on the small hill, the man from the village came out to feed his horse,/he put down his bundle of straw and sat on the stone/looking quietly and a little sadly at the animal’s balls.”  (The Main Thing – Yannis Ritsos)

 

[2] It is possible that Beef Tea was in fact humming the lesser known tune: ЗИМНЯЯ НОЧЪ (Winter Night): words by Boris Pasternak.

 





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CHAPTER ONE