It's in my head. It's in my head. It's in my head.
The sun beat down on him like a malevolent yellow spatula. The sand was a lithe writhing thing, licking lasciviously at the interstices of toes.
'You have it?'
Dawson was soft, pink, taper-nosed, accoutred in effeminate malice, wise in the ways of wavelets, skipping goatlike from the lapping water, shod by Timpson's, bearing a candyfloss jesterbladder. There was a run in his left stocking.
'The stork brought it,' said Larrikin. 'There may not be many left. This time next year...' The sentence was unfinished, like Mahler's tenth symphony or a bitter love affair. Larrikin spread his fingers expressive of wry regret or uncertainty; or was that the sign for cheesecake? Dawson was weak on sign-language and could not be sure.
He smoothed his moustache with a manicured finger which he then carefully replaced in its matchbox. 'It would be best, perhaps, if we did not meet again. There are those who feel it...' He sighed and looked out to sea, picking a word with the meticulous exactitude of a maitre d' picking a flea from a bowl of vichyssoise, '...inappropriate...' He smiled as he rolled the mot juste out in a resplendent eight or nine syllables, creasing his worldworn eyes as he watched the gulls wheel and defecate over the missile silos across the bay. 'There are those who find you...' Again he sighed and methodically plucked a word, '...hyacinthine. No. Globulous? Lemony fresh? Ach. Erratic. Yes,' he nodded, 'there are many, my dear Leon, who find you increasingly erratic.'
'Ah.' Larrikin was calm, even pleased. Very little could touch him now. That warm, almost sentient weight in his pocket was all the reassurance he needed. He touched it for support.
Dawson winced fastidiously. 'Must you? Here? In front of my mother?'
Larrikin smiled apologetically at the scowling black bombazine mass in the motorized bathchair and extracted his hand freely, gaily, with a cavalier flourish.
'See, see,' cried Dawson, 'that's what I'm talking about, right there, I bring you here for a discreet meeting and you start to beat off in your pants, right in front of my mother, and children everywhere, Jesus, where's your thinking?'
'I want to go home now,' said the old lady.
'Shut up and eat some candy-floss,' said Dawson, shoving the confection into her querulous goatface in an outburst of filial tenderness. She flung it pettishly on the sand with an old Gallic epithet. Gently, Larrikin knelt to her and offered her some seaweed; this gift found a grudging acceptance and she started to nibble on it with fading suspicion.
'It's all right for you,' said Dawson jealously. 'She always liked you. But you never have to change her batteries every day.'
'You grudge her that?' said Larrikin mildly, stroking the old woman's moulting head. 'And yet, in a way, she gave us everything.'
'Oh, yes, yes,' snarled Dawson impatiently, with the air of reciting a well-worn lesson, 'she sawed her legs off and fed them to us at the height of the Battle of Stalingrad, when the Germans had surrounded the city and there was nothing to eat, boo bloody hoo.'
'She had no need to do that, you know. We didn't even live in Stalingrad at the time. We lived on a farm in Switzerland, with geese and chickens and pigs and a chip-shop at the end of the road. We had plenty of food, we were stuffed to the gills, we could barely get her legs down. And yet she did it anyway.' Larrikin examined his hand thoughtfully and wiped the old woman's hairs off on Dawson's jacket. 'You've changed, Nigel,' he said without rancour. 'Once upon a time you believed in something.'
'That ended that day in Antwerp when I was scalped by a stray frisbee.'
'A rum do,' Larrikin admitted. 'It might sour anyone.'
Dawson smiled lopsidedly and walked a few steps down the shore, seeking to shake off his mother who was now crawling along the sand biting his ankle. 'I would not say I am soured, Leon. I am, let us say...' Again he stared out to sea and wrestled with his aphasia, '...Flocculent? NO. Hudibrastic? Hmmm. Re-upholstered. Fuck a duck. Realistic. Yes, I am realistic...' Musingly, he picked up a stick of driftwood and tickled his mother's ear with it. She liked that, and gurgled approval.
The heat was like a huge sloppy dog panting down the back of Larrikin's neck. He was suddenly impatient.
'Look, do you want this package or not? Seven men and a trained otter died to bring it to me.'
Dawson had skewered a dead seagull with his stick and was feeding it to the old woman. Who was he to judge him, Larrikin thought? He was a good son after all. 'At this point the package is, shall we say...impertinent? Jesus. Immaterial. Immaterial. In certain quarters we are more concerned with your...' Dawson turned his back on Larrikin and riffled hurriedly through a small pocket dictionary, 'mantelpiece...metal-detector...methods!' He cried triumphantly. 'Certain people have expressed a certain...dis, dis, dis, distemper?...something with dis...with your methods. They find your methods...' He sucked in his cheeks judiciously, '...unapprovalworthyish.'
'Certain people. I need not specify. Let us just say, Tom, Bob, Phil, Gladys, Murgatroyd, Pik, Jesus, Sally, Sir Grobbelaar, Jorik, Spud, Tiggy Underarm and Mavis the Tea-Lady.'
'Mavis wanted us to staple a ferret to your scrotum as a warning.' Dawson dumped his mother back in her chair and pulled the starter handle.
'Then it's gone as far as that.' Then there might be nothing for it but the night flight to Rio, the surgeons, the new identity carefully prepared years ago, re-emergence as Sandra Ap-Llewellyn, girl stationmaster, of Llandudno.
The two men walked along the shore in silence, the old woman weaving ahead of them driving over sandcastles.
'Leon!' Dawson was suddenly expansive, jovial. 'How many years have we known each other? Let's not play these word games. We are spies, spies, and good ones! Spies, spies I tell you!' he yelled at a startled picnicking family. 'Why be ashamed of what we are? Recruited together. Remember how it was in the old days? The lurking, the sniding around. When did it all change? Nowadays it's all about the results. Back then we'd lurk in a dark alley for six days straight just for the sheer joy of the thing. God, what I'd give for a really good lurk now. I so rarely have the time...'
A high-pitched whine was starting to build in Larrikin's head. Dawson's words faded in and out like a badly-tuned radio.
'...where are the snows of yesteryear? That little interrogation chamber off the Ku-Damm where old man Kropotkin took my right big toe is now a salad-bar...'
'...I remember in the old days we used to get Luncheon Vouchers, never any more. It's the little things you miss...'
Belching black clouds of smoke, the old woman's bathchair had turned onto the pier at the end of the beach and was precipitating fishermen into the briny.
'...Listen to me...'
'...remember the time we put a two-way transceiver in the private parts of the Russian Premier's mistress...old Percy Warshaw got bored one day and started ventriloquizing through it just as the old man was about to get lucky, 'That's the most useless dick I've ever seen, how do you expect that thing to wriggle into me...' '
'...recited, 'Wee sleekit, cow'rin, timorous beastie,' to him, most off-putting...the fat old bastard turned homo after that...'
'...They did something to me... in Scunthorpe... I think...'
'...Old Perce, crumpled and hoarding gherkins, always picking at his verrucas...taught me everything I know...'
'...They put a bomb in my head...'
'...can always judge a man by the quality of his marmalade...a Communist will make marmalade out of bunny-rabbits, badgers, anything...'
'...Guy Burgess served me a confit of hedgehog, that was when I knew...'
'...I think...it's going...off...'
The sunlight stabbed him like a deranged gardener. His head was inflating like a surgical balloon. He heard, as down a telephone line, Dawson's sudden cry, saw, as through the wrong end of a kaleidoscope, the old woman driving off the end of the pier and scuttling a pedalo thirty feet below. He knew a second of sudden awesome clarity where the punchline of an enigmatic joke he had been told at junior school was made plain to him, he remembered what had become of a cherished paisley sock he had mislaid while moving house ten years before, and he saw, in pristine detail, the face of Angela Falafell, his first love, and realized how exactly she panted like the cocker spaniel he had owned at the age of four. And then everything was screaming sunlight as the dome of his head blew off and landed neatly in the picnic hamper of a Belgian family twenty feet away, leaving the steaming remains of his skull as jagged and pathetic as a hatched egg.
'I am never taking either of you anywhere again,' screamed Dawson.
Larrikin picked up the top of his head, wiped off the mayonnaise, and trudged off down the beach to build a better world.
26th April 2003