We’re back in the police station with Phil as he thinks about the scenes he’s just read in Aubrey’s manuscripts, the scenes voiced by both George and Justine in the previous two chapters.
Phil looked up from the manuscript, perplexed.
Not at what he’d just read; he’d save his thoughts on that for later.
No. He was perplexed at the soundtrack that had been playing in his ear the whole time he’d been reading the scene on the landing and in the chair in the drawing room afterwards. And he was perplexed because it was the strangest song which, anyone would’ve considered most incongruent for the episodes between Justine and George. Truth be told, Phosphorescent’s ‘Song for Zula’, with its indie American desert vibe, couldn’t be further from the dark, angsty mood consistently pegged on the Victorian era. The lyrics didn’t even fit, for Christ’s sake. But then again, it had been anything goes tonight, hadn’t it? I mean, the world was turning upside down anyway so did one thing really have to match another? Mismatched was the new matched as far as he was concerned.
Besides, in his books, the TV people didn’t know what they were doing anymore.
It all went back to those period pieces Claire insisted on watching.
Phil bet if the Executive of the Moment ripped the classical music from the parlours and drawing rooms and started pumping modern music into the matter, said executive would start opening these dusty old stories up and get the younger generations involved. And, considering in a matter of twenty years, the current viewers would be dropping like flies, stoking the interest of the middle-agers of tomorrow was a necessity if these period pieces were going to carry on.
And really, was it so incongruent to superimpose a modern American song onto a Victorian episode? I mean, after all was said and done (which courtesy of the internet was never), thanks totechnology, people were continually traversing the scribble lines of time and space, pausing at one of the gazillion junctions to listen to a long dead Elvis singing with some still-living superstar or witness World War One as if it were filmed yesterday on the latest iPhone. There was very little distance anymore.
And to prove his song choice wasn’t so far off, Phil donned his headphones for the manyeth time that night and, for real this time, listened to the actual ‘Song for Zula’ and re-read George’s description of Justine seducing him with kindness on the chair in the drawing room.
To the rhythm of the music, the whole thing was plainer than day.
Phil could see Justine setting down her pipe and walking toward George, her skirt beginning to slip as she moved. He could see her leaning over him and gripping the arms of the chair as she kissed him. He could see her standing, her skirt falling to the floor, her corset sliding from her pretty shoulders. He could see her sweep of hair – then the side shadow of her spine in the firelight – the glow of the flames on her hourglass figure – the sheen of her boots – the shimmer of the ribbons on the stockings above them. He could see her easing herself onto George, holding his head in her hands, revealing her nape as she bowed to his crown.
And dare he come around to the other side of the chair in his brain?
Fuck it – why not?
So, he dared.
With the seamless swivel of a camera on wheels, he was there behind the chair, watching this Venus of an ancestor working her candy floss magic on George who must’ve been losing his mind if he wanted off the merry-go-around before it got to its final destination.
What kind of line was ‘it spun like sugar into candy floss around me’ anyway?
One that made Phil think of fairgrounds in late summer, that was for certain – and suddenly, there Claire was, in her 1980’s glory – with her indigo mascara and Farah Fawcett hair, standing in the multicoloured lights of the midway in her ballet flats and her pencil skirt, batting her eyelashes at him over a cloud of baby pink candy floss, saying something silly-provocative to whet his appetite for the back seat of his parents’ Morris Oxford later which was a risky maneuver to say the least as he didn’t have his license and the vintage car was under a tarpaulin in the garage.
As ‘Song for Zula’ played on, Phil watched in awe as Justine faded and Claire shimmied around his old bedroom in nothing but his Doc Martens and her turquoise bikini, smoking a cigarette and telling him what she was about to do to him in the parabolic chair his father had bought at a jumble sale for £4.90.
“Those were the days, eh, love?” Phil whispered, aware that his and Claire’s parabolic chair and sex boots days were long gone and that the Doc Martens that held so many memories were now part of some boy’s Hallowe’en costume.
Heavy-heartedly, Phil watched Claire fade and Justine return in her full undulating glory.
‘Song of Zula’ just kept playing.
Phil watched Justine’s body to-and-froing in the firelight, the strand of beads swinging on her skin and in the shadows. How beautiful she was as she moved like that.
There was no way you could play that scene to classical music.
No way, not if you wanted to make it relevant to the here-and-now.
And as Phil watched it, he knew in his heart of hearts, it just had to be ‘Song for Zula’. It simply had to be, and no one would believe it until they saw it, until he made them see it somehow. But who was he kidding? You’re a copper, for Christ’s sake, he said to himself. You’re reading a bloody manuscript which could be evidence in a murder case. Not pitching it for TV. Get a bloody grip, mate. It’s bad enough that it’s leading down the rabbit hole of your youth into your past lives. And now you’re coming up with a soundtrack for a hit series. How delusional can you be?
“Pretty damn delusional,” he muttered, adding the song to the list on his ‘notes’ page, just – in – case – because life was a funny thing, wasn’t it, and one never knew where one was going to end up.
I mean, people couldn’t even say they were going to end up in graves these days.
Coffins weren’t even a given anymore as all kinds of folks were having their ashes planted with trees to be one with the garden, forest, or grove. As far as Phil could see, death itself hadn’t escaped the consciousness of the new age, average Joe Zen masters and the ‘you-can-have-whatever-you-wanters’ selling their secrets on the internet. What about that one bloke charging £400 an hour for a private multi-transformational consultation? I mean, fuck, that’s a bit of a lifeboat off the Titanic situation if ever there was one, wasn’t it? Offering the secret to life to rich folks in between mud massages and French manicures at the five-star all-inclusive in the Caribbean? Folks already tripping the light fantastic in paradise.
Come to think of it, that was probably Vic’s problem. Clearly, an economically impaired Vic had been denied a lifeboat in the last life and he’d be damned if such an injustice were going to happen again. And he’d be even further damned if he were going to be denied a good pair of shoes whilst the museum in eastern Canada was still making money from the pair he’d lost in the Atlantic years before. No wonder Vic had invested a small fortune in the memory-foam trainers which stuck to his feet like super-glue leeches. And – speak of the devil: re-enter Vic.
‘Ha-ha-ha,’ Phil heard Vic say to the Grim Reaper. ‘You thought you were the endpoint when really you’re just the revolving door. Hey, Owens – I kid you not, I’ve already signed up for the Limb-to-Leaf Reassignment Plan. It’s quite literally costing me an arm and leg, but the outcome is beautiful, because – get this – in the next life as a tree I’m going to have so many fucking limbs, it’ll blow your mind. And considering I’ve opted to donate my future limbs to the inmate carpentry program they’re running out of the Mistwell Penitentiary, I could end up in all kinds of situations – simultaneously! It’ll be fucking awesome, a revolutionary multiplane existence. Think about it. At the very same time, I could be a clarinet getting blown on a regular basis – a bed frame shaking with the secondhand vibrations of a couple of newlyweds – and the exposed beam in an exotic nightclub with a bird’s-eye view of moves to die for – but I wouldn’t be dying, would I, because I’d already be dead.’
“I’m pretty sure today’s clarinets might be made of synthetic material,” Phil muttered to the memory. “And as for your beam analogy, it – no, sorry, you – wouldn’t be all you’d be cut out to be. Because, as a piece of wood, you wouldn’t you have any eyes to enjoy your bird’s-eye view. And even if you could see with some sort of mind’s eye, you’d be permanently hard with no bloody release. Until a few decades hence when the club came down and you turned into firewood. So, the way I see it, mate, no matter how many pieces you’re split into, you’re still fucked.”
‘Which brings me to an important point, Owens. I’m sick and tired of people using that expression as if it were an insult. Think about it, mate. There’s no better state in this world than to be ‘fucked’, in a literal sense that is. If more people were fucked, we wouldn’t have half the problems we have because everyone would be so much more relaxed. You’d see an instant decline in all the micromanagers out there. The nitpickers would start picking their battles with more prudency. With the exception of the necessary body part, things that used to seem huge would suddenly be no biggie.’
“Really, Vic?” huffed Phil, rolling his eyes.
‘Whenever someone tells me I’m fucked, do you know what my response is?’ Vic’s voice kept floating back through time. ‘It’s ‘thank you very much’.’
As soon as Phil remembered Vic saying that, he was back to mentally filming George and Justine on the chair to ‘Song for Zula’. What kind of footage was he recording anyway? It wasn’t pornography, was it? Although, to be fair, George himself had said and Phil quoted – “it was pornography so sweet, it spun like sugar into candy floss” around him. So, if he took George’s word for it, it sort of was pornographic in a ‘little-bit’, sugary kind of way. And truth be told, Phil added with a shrug, if he had his druthers, he’d film this sexual black magic so beautifully, the viewers would make the mental leap headfirst into the “it’s art” diagnosis, bypassing the ‘should-we-really-be-programming-this’ assessment. He’d pull a ‘Seymour Higgins’ with the new technology, he would.
‘Song for Zula’ ended and Phil snapped off the headphones.
The auditory magic was over, and he stopped mentally filming George and Justine. They returned to the paragraphs beneath him. The memory of Vic’s voice vanished as well and Phil sat there in solitude, aware that, since reading Aubrey’s work, his mind had started zigzagging all over the place, zooming from hallucination to hallucination, leaving him questioning just about everything: his childhood, his relationship with Richie, his marriage, his probable past life as Sidney Winterbourne, not to mention ethics and his quickly-blurring line between what was wrong and what was right.
Like the episode just read and reimagined as a televised scene.
Was what Justine and George were doing wrong or right?
Or did it even matter?
Leaning back in Detective Redmond’s chair, Phil ran his fingers through the last of his mahogany curls. And, there, in the swirl of thought, he began thinking of Aubrey, the bright young woman whose body was still lying cold in the mortuary, waiting the green light for release, a green light which, Phil knew, hinged on his verdict on the manuscript two-thirds read in the lamplight now.
Where was Aubrey in all of this?
I mean, she’d written the thing for Christ’s sake, so she was all over it like some beautiful invisible presence in a saga about other people. She – was – there just as all artists were in their art. Her joy, her pain, her sensuality, her energy, her disappointment, her cruelty, her criticism of the world around her. It was all there in others – in Gregory, in Justine, in George, in Sidney, in Harold. From blissful to devastated to brooding to orgasmic, she flowed through their every move on the paper before him. And thinking this, suddenly Phil thought of how, once Gregory had died, Justine had begun to see him in everything around her. The author, in this case Aubrey, was only absent physically. Emotionally, psychologically, spiritually, she was in every word, every sentence. Aubrey was ever-present in her absence.
Was that really such a strange concept?
For as Phil looked around Redmond’s office filled with all its artifacts, he could feel Redmond’s energy too. And although, for the life of him, he couldn’t figure out why, Cake’s version of ‘I Will Survive’ insisted on walloping his figurative eardrum. To the defiant lyrics, Phil could see Redmond when she wasn’t there, her curls tamed into a taut bun, her sharp green eyes staring at him over the horizon of her aviators as she chained her bicycle to the blue post below the police light near the entranceway. And that – her piercing stare – had always made him shiver a little inside because it zipped from his face straight down to the daily doughnut from Larkspur’s dangling from his grip in a 100% recycled paper bag.
Redmond didn’t need to say a thing: her look said it all. I mean, seriously, if looks could kill, Redmond’s surely would – well, at least, on the judgement plain. In the tawny upshade of her obnoxious aviators, her look said, ‘How many doughnuts have you clocked in your lifetime, Owens? More doughnuts than rotations on my bicycle wheels, that’s for certain. I’m surprised you can still run. I’d watch it if I were you. For if you keep funding Larkspur’s, you won’t be capable of running when it counts. There’s a particular level of fitness expected of our officers.’
“Well at least my family loves me,” Phil muttered back as if Redmond were standing right in front of him, slipping a bobby pin into a corkscrew curl which had escaped her bun in her uber-stride up the stairs. But he muttered with unease for he wasn’t so sure of that anymore.
“What the hell, Phil,” he added, irritated at the private pity parties he’d been throwing for himself lately, usually with a Corona, a cigarette from the memory box and some vintage porn thrown in, vintage because he FLAT-OUT refused to get off on anyone the same age as his children. That was yet another thing he couldn’t see eye to eye on with Vic who was as happy as a clam to hook up with anyone born between 1940 and 2000. “Christ.” He’d never thought of it that way. Sexually speaking, Vic had a sixty-year margin. In fact, Vic’s margin was so big, it devoured the whole page. That was harrowing. If Vic weren’t careful, he could unintentionally kill someone.
And then, very unfortunately for all involved (which was only Phil), Phil suddenly recalled George’s beyond-horrific payment to Bertie – one tongue for another – which clobbered Phil with the very unpleasant epiphany that the tongue should’ve been included in the ‘eye-for-an-eye’, ‘tooth-for-a-tooth’ scenario, the body-part justice system detailed in the Old Testament. For, as far as Phil was concerned, it’d be better to exchange an eye for an eye or a tooth for tooth than to engage in the nauseating transaction which had taken place between Bertie and George.
A tongue for a tongue?
Now, that was beyond—beyond—beyond vile.
Phil closed his eyes and massaged his temples, trying to shake the image from his mind.
But sadly, the universe has a wicked sense of humour so that wasn’t going to happen.
Of course not.
So, Phil grabbed the arms of Redmond’s chair as that little hobbit of a woman Bertie palm-whipped her bulbous, bug-eyed way toward him to – oh God, no – the soundtrack of AC/DC’s Highway to Hell, a spectacle which, whether endured physically or witnessed in one’s imagination, truly was a steep ride down, quite literally, into the underworld of the human body or, in Bertie’s case, soon-to-be cadaver.
“Thanks. Aubrey, for that,” Phil said under his breath as he watched a traumatized George leaping up from between Bertie’s legs and brushing his tongue from now until the end of time. Because, what on earth does one do when the trigger – in George’s case, the tongue – is in you 24/7? At least with the eye and tooth payment, you get rid of the eye or the tooth. But not really as you’ve still got one eye left and god-knows how many teeth.
But then again, enter Justine in her voluptuous, edgy glory, ready to untether herself from her mourning clothes and ride at dawn and, kapow!, all would be forgotten. And it would be forgotten to Stairway to Heaven by Led Zepplin with purple strobe lighting casting its glow on the floor and the ceiling. Firelight and pipe smoke, black beads, and boots. Justine – in Phil’s books – was pure magic, so long as he was still in Phil-mode, not looking at things through Sidney’s eyes in which case he’d be ogling his own mother with his brother nonetheless! So best for all involved (still just Phil in this case), Phil was Phil at that voyeuristic moment in his own imagination.
Opening his notes on his mobile, Phil jabbed ‘Stairway to Heaven’ under ‘Song for Zula’ as another viable option for the drawing room seduction scene on yet another chair (what was it with these Victorians and their chairs?). But, remembering the band Cake and his reoccurring song choice for Redmond, he quickly added ‘Short Skirt, Long Jacket’ to Justine’s list, adding for ‘For the Harold Clarke scenes’ in brackets afterwards.
And suddenly, to ‘Short Skirt, Long Jacket’, Phil found himself watching Harold Clarke sitting all brandy-eyed by the fire at Foxglove, trying to tell himself that the woman talking about a very naughty snowman wasn’t drop-dead gorgeous and that in no way did he want to – not even just a little bit – to snap off his suspenders and give her new-property-owner’s body a spin, because such behaviour simply wasn’t on and he had to keep his sharp solicitor’s wits about him.
Subject to yet another reworking of the manuscript’s scenes, Phil felt sorry that Harold would never have the chance to see Justine in a short skirt. He’d have to make do with the long jacket (well, a cloak to be honest), and, if Harold were lucky, he might get to tour a few facilities with Justine in the pages ahead. And truth be told, Justine certainly matched the description of the woman in the song.
Aware that he digressed, Phil forgave himself and went back to the question.
‘Where was Aubrey in all this?’
His original answer – that she was in every character and on every page – wasn’t enough to solve the mystery of her death.
“Come on, mate, what is this story telling you about Aubrey Holloway?”
Phil’s pencil was out again, another page in his notepad turned.
“What kind of person was she?”
She would’ve had to have been focussed (he wrote ‘focussed’ down) because she couldn’t have pulled a manuscript like this off if she’d been distracted. Or maybe the manuscript was the distraction; maybe Aubrey’s story was the protective decoy to save her from whatever was happening in her own life.
Tapping his pencil on the page, he decided to go back to that point later.
She would’ve had to have been sensitive (he added ‘sensitive’ to his list) and open (‘open’ went down next), alert to the tiniest details in people’s gestures, appearances, emotions and behaviours, receptive to the gazillion messages people, often unconsciously, send out into the world by way of their words, their guises, their body language. And she would’ve had to have been porous enough to absorb this mix of human action and feeling into her system for use on the page.
Furthermore, she would’ve had to have been brave (he wrote ‘brave’ under ‘open’) enough to voice the things she did, albeit through her characters. Was the George/Bertie episode not proof enough of that? For even he, Phil, would’ve had a hard time penning that atrocity – which brought Phil to his next point:
‘Intensely sexual’ went down under ‘brave’.
Circling those words, Phil thought deeply about that.
When Aubrey sex-wrote (was there a more adequate expression for it?), she simultaneously seemed to lose and find herself. The characters, whoever they were in the moment, were a thin guise for their author. But why? And suddenly Phil realised. In those scenes, and those scenes alone, the first-person narrators Justine and George slipped into the same poetic expression, clearly not their own. Those sexual lines, written in a similar style, were not Victorian in nature, and often mentioned modern things. That was Aubrey’s voice for certain – Aubrey Holloway voiced by her own characters – a role reversal between an author and her narrators –a slip-up in their voices. And here Phil had been thinking that the ancestors had hijacked Aubrey when Aubrey was hijacking them right back, using them to make a sexual point.
Had she been repressed?
Or a literary nymphomaniac?
Or turned on by her own creative flow?
Or was she lonely, in search of sexual affection, creating it on paper to make up for real life?
“What do stories say about their writers?” Phil murmured to himself.
Circling ‘sexual intensity’ again, Phil remembered hearing an interview once in which a writer said that writers write what they most fear. If that were true with this manuscript, Aubrey must’ve feared infidelity, death, and suicide – murder too – for she had written all those things. But, circling the words again, Phil wasn’t so sure. There’d been a longing in the tone – an ache which radiated from the words. Maybe writers write what they most want, Phil thought. And maybe what they want coincides with what they fear. Maybe Aubrey wanted the very things of which she was afraid, or better yet, the highs within those lows. Perhaps she craved the thrill of stolen kisses or the relief of her life ended, the rest that comes with laying down one’s sword and not having to fight anymore.
‘Energy’ Phil added to the list.
Because Aubrey Holloway had written with energy.
She wasn’t flagging, nor did she want to lay down her sword. She was not writing as a person ready to die, but rather as a person bent on living. And the more Phil thought this, the more convinced he was that there was NO WAY she could’ve taken her own life, not in a million. If anything, through her characters, she came across as a person up for the fight. But what fight? A fight between who? Between Justine and George once they discovered each other’s secrets?
He’d have to keep on reading to find out.
But before he did, he had a thought – one of a thousand.
And that thought was that Aubrey Holloway had felt abandoned.
Not in an over-the-top sort of way.
But in the average everyday kind of way that comes with real life, in sharing airspace with people absorbed in their own journeys, given to their own trajectories in which there’s little time for emotional coddling or spiritual reciprocation.
And how did he know this?
Because he’d been like that.
Ever since Richie had died, he’d gone the extra mile to pump the wind in his parents’ sails. He’d done what they’d wanted and tried to fill Richie’s gap. But he, with his big brown eyes and little boy’s heart, hadn’t been able to compensate for who they’d lost. Everything he had was just enough to keep them afloat; there’d been no surplus from which they could give back.
So where had he gone?
To his dreams, that’s where. To his stories.
And when his parents had shut those down, he’d turned to Claire and a good decent life, and as an upstanding citizen of the Heath, had made Beryl and Floyd as proud as punch.
Phil flipped back in his mind to Aubrey’s academic records. Award upon award. High standing this and higher standing that. And where were they when she’d graduated? Overseas. Had they come back? No. And the minute they knew that their daughter was dead, why weren’t they on the first aeroplane back? Why were they coming back tomorrow, three days after she’d died? I mean, he didn’t want to judge, but he was going to, so therefore he actually did want to judge. If that were James or Nico in the mortuary, he’d be fretting on the step outside until he had them in his keeping. Christ, the Holloways’ absence spoke volumes about Aubrey’s past. And considering that money had been no option to them, and they could’ve flown first class, their absence screamed emotional neglect.
There was no record of Aubrey having any mental illness.
But she would’ve felt abandoned.
She would’ve experienced loneliness.
And Phil suddenly understood, she would’ve learned from a very young age to take refuge in her own mind, to create the sorts of people who’d always reciprocate and emotionally provide. She would grow up to write about love and physical affection, above all – love – and for her, writing would be loving, loving herself when others were too busy to love back – or too renowned – or too full of themselves – or too stressed – or too ill – or too traumatized – or too human in fact.
That was the thing with paper people.
They’d take every last drop of your emotion and still keep you company on the darkest of nights, stay by your side through heartache and catharsis. It could be four o’clock in the morning and there they’d be in ink or on screen, celebrating epiphany no. 27 with you in the dawn light while whoever you lived with was lost in deep slumber.
“God, lass, do I ever understand you,” Phil whispered.
Phil then called down to the mortuary to see if Sully were willing to bring Aubrey’s body out again which he was. Grabbing his coat, he left Redmond’s office, winked at Jeannie in the Polaroid Room and took the staircase down to the door, stepping outside and walking to the mortuary where Sully was waiting for him with an “I’ll leave you to it” for the second time that night.