Best known for the Adrian Mole books, the late Sue Townsend wrote a variety of other interesting novels, memoirs and plays. I picked up this one after Beth Jellicoe mentioned it on her piece about Muriel Sparks’ Loitering with Intent, the latter certainly one of my faves amongst her many fine novels—and a book that will appeal to almost any writer. What intrigued me was the thumbnail description: ‘In her underrated novel Rebuilding Coventry (1988), Sue Townsend tells the story of a housewife and mother, Coventry, who commits a murder and escapes to London without even a handbag.’
Even better, she commits murder with an Action Man. It makes me want to be more ambitious about murder weapons.
As it’s Townsend, there’s a lot of great satire along the way. You’ll recognise most of the characters along the way: the woman who has to look down on everyone, the man who has to pretend he’s had every woman, the husband who has never thought anything about his wife as a human being—and some totally bizarre characters who’ll make you laugh out loud, especially the eccentric couple near Russell Square.
Coventry commits murder in the Midlands and then flees to London, where she has never been in her life. A big part of the novel is her suddenly figuring out how one lives in London not only without cash but also without any kind of identification. Even in 1988, however, there are a huge number of people doing that (and more now). While there are a lot of humorous moments, that’s not part of it. Townsend doesn’t make light of life on the streets.
The most fascinating aspect is how in alternating chapters, Townsend takes us back to the Midlands to see how everything changes in Coventry’s wake. So, your mother/wife/friend/daughter is a murderer. Did you know she had it in her? Do you even wonder why it happened? Is this really all about you?
She shares a cardboard box with a woman who calls herself Dodo who turns out to be the sister of a very important cabinet minister whom they visit on Dodo’s birthday. Behind the scenes, as one suspects, the posh people all proudly give way to anti-Semitism, racism and outright fascism. Because Coventry is pretty (having been washed and plopped into an evening gown), so they think she’s one of them – at least until Dodo starts threatening to put their heads on spikes along Westminster Bridge. The two are packed off to the Ritz for the night.
There’s a wonderful dream sequence that we slide seamlessly into, slowly getting into greater absurdity until we arrive at, ‘The front door is opened by Les Dawson wearing a pantomime cook’s costume.’ A lot of the story feels as surreal as you would expect life after a sudden murder might be. Change is the only constant.
For Coventry’s husband, it’s the Flitcraft effect: as Hammett wrote, ‘He felt like somebody had taken the lid off life and let him look at the works.’ His world was built around his wife managing everything so he could devote himself to his turtles. He’s mostly annoyed: ‘Derek wondered why all of the women he knew appeared to be going mad. It wasn’t just members of his own family. The girls at work were getting stroppy: demanding things, more money, improved conditions, flexi-hours.’ His only aim is to put that life back on, thank you very much.
Coventry has the advantage of not being able to return. Murder might be the best thing that ever happened to her…
Stop Me If You’ve Heard This One
Ginger Ronny had told Burkey about the murder towards the bitter end of one of their occasional raucous Tuesday night drinking sessions, as the dawn had desperately begun to grasp for life and Malcolm Duffy was grumpily getting ready to close up Le Duffy. But it wasn’t until the cusp of Wednesday evening – as Burkey struggled out of bed to start his night shift at the slaughterhouse – that the reality of the situation finally melted into his consciousness, like ice cubes in a glass of Jack Daniels.
‘Jude Walker,’ he groaned, as he sat on the stained and wobbly toilet. ‘Jude friggin’ Walker.’
He put his head in his hands as he pebble-dashed the inside of the toilet bowl with the residue of the previous night’s boozing session and tried to force a tear or two with the same passion that he’d shat. But he couldn’t. Despite all Jude had done for Burkey over the years, the man had been a nasty twat who’d had payback coming to him for donkeys.
Burkey showered, dressed and left his flat, a hovel that was above a closed down dirty book store and had been advertised as being a ‘loft-style apartment’. He started to have a nagging feeling tugging at him as he limped down the stairs, and it wasn’t just the need for a little eye opener before he started work.
As he shuffled into Le Duffy’s dimly lit bar, adjusting his eyes as he negotiated his way through the closely stacked tables, he realised what the problem was. Ronny had confided in him. Burkey. Or Gimpy, as he usually called him. Of all of Ronny’s dodgy cronies and neo-incestuous family members he’d confessed a murder to Burkey.
Although they occasionally got drunk together, Ronny and Burkey had never been friends, as such. Ronny had even regularly taken great pleasure in taking the piss out of Burkey’s limp. Even back in school he had been worse than most of the other kids when it came to cruel jibes. They were bound together by a love of the booze, though, which wasn’t everything but it was a lot.
Malcolm served Burkey his usual pre-work shot of peppermint schnapps. He hated the taste but it didn’t smell of booze, they said. He sat at the bar, knocked it back and ordered another. This Ronny situation was a quandary and a conundrum, as his old granddad used to say. What the hell was Ronny up to?
He ordered another drink and tried to piece together what Ronny had actually told him about killing Jude.
It went like this: Ronny was sat in his Ford Granada in the car park outside The Bongo Club getting a blow job from Skinny Minnie, one of the club’s barmaids, who gave extras when it came close to her rent day. She was dressed as a schoolgirl since, although she was forty if she was a day, she had the skinny, petit body of an anorexic teen which boosted her earning capacity.
After she eventually swallowed his load, Ronny loosened his grip and allowed her to come up for air. He pulled a wad of notes from his Wranglers and peeled a few off. Most of the cash he used to pay her was counterfeit but there was so much of it in the town these days that it was becoming accepted currency.
He sat and smoked a joint while Minnie cleaned him up with baby wipes and there was a knock on the window. Well, more of a bang. Ronny wound down the window to see the massive form of Jude Walker shouting and screaming about something or other. Ronny had no idea what he was on about. Not that it mattered since Jude had a tendency to completely lose the plot over any old thing when he was snorting the crap coke that was produced by the same Russians that made the fake cash.
Ronny knew that there was nothing he could do to placate Jude and began to wind up the window when Jude stuffed a massive hand through the gap and grabbed Minnie by the throat. Well, Ronny, ever the gentleman, couldn’t allow that to happen so he pushed open the car door sending Jude sprawling backwards until he crashed his head against the breeze-block wall that everyone used to piss against when then went outside the club for a cigarette. Ronny walked over and saw that Jude was out for the count. And then, before he could do anything about it, Minnie turned up with a brick and proceeded to smash the shite out of the unconscious Jude’s big fat head.
Ronny apparently grabbed the brick from Minnie and slapped her till she calmed down. Then he started to hyperventilate. They were so far in shit creek an outboard motor wouldn’t help, let alone a paddle. Jude Walker was an old school-friend, for sure, but he was also the off-white sheep in a very dark family. A very loyal family indeed.
Burkey looked up at the cracked triangular clock that hung behind the bar and realised that he was going to be late for work if he didn’t get a move on. Fuck it, he thought. This was serious stuff. He ordered another drink. A proper one this time. A double Jack D.
The bar had started to fill out without him realising it and he was in his pots, singing along to the Pina Colada song when someone tapped him on his shoulder. He could almost taste the sour breath.
‘Burkey, I need you,’ Ronny whispered in his ear. Burkey turned and saw Ginger Ronny, high as a kite, wearing a cagoule and covered in all sorts of mud and shit.
‘What do you … want?’ said Burkey.
‘I need you to help me bury him.’
‘Get a friggin’ move on Gimpy,’ said Ronny, as it started pissing down.
A big grin crawled across his flushed face like a caterpillar. Burkey assumed Ronny thought that using his old school nickname would motivate him. Far from it. He was starting to realise that Ronnie was just manipulating him. Using him to do his dirty work.
Burkey forced a smile. He was getting soaked to the skin in a vandalised cemetery, after spending the last half hour digging a grave and Ronnie was going on and on at him like fingers down a blackboard.
Burkey stopped, the pain in his bad knee getting worse and worse in the cold and wet weather.
‘Give me a minute or two,’ he said.
‘Oh, for fucks sake, Gimpy, I friggin’ told you …’
Burkey swung the shovel without thinking about it and it smacked Ronnie square on in the head. Ronnie just stood there, an unlit cigarette in his hand. A blank expression on his face that reminded Burkey of a cartoon character.
So Burkey twatted him again and he fell forward into the open grave. There was a flash of lightning, followed by a rumble of thunder as Burkey managed to drag himself out of the grave. He paused to catch his breath and got down to covering up the bodies with renewed enthusiasm, safe in the knowledge that he’d make it back to Le Duffy in time for last orders. But he’d keep himself to himself tonight, that was for sure.
Paul D Brazill was born in England and lives in Poland. His writing has been translated into Polish, Italian, German and Slovene. He has had writing published in various magazines and anthologies, including three editions of THE MAMMOTH BOOK OF BEST BRITISH CRIME.
Every night we watch true crime
programmes on T.V. Tonight the
inevitable happened, one crime slid
into another. My wife asked “Do you
get this ? Why did he kill him ?”
” Well, obviously it was the ten grand. ”
” No, Ian that was the last programme.
The one that was on before. ” She was
right, after seeing about 10,000 crimes,
I’d finally lost the plot.
You see, they call them issues these days. Not like issues of comics like Shoot or Whizzer and Chips or Razzle, though. Naw, these are things like anger management issues, relationship issues, substance abuse issues. What that means is that issues are stuff that’s wrong with you. Stuff that fucks you up. And fucked-up people are called people with issues. See?
Like Tony Amerigo. It’s his dirty book shop that I’m stood in. He’s got issues, alright. He used to be a well tasty heavyweight. Could have knocked the Brut out of Henry Cooper, back in the day. But old Tony, like his dad before him, is more than a bit fond of the booze – floats like a butterfly, drinks like a fish. So, he’s got alcohol issues. Self-medication issues. So, now he’s got cash flow issues. Which is why I’m here trying not to breath in the cigarette smoke since Tony hasn’t exactly responded to the smoking ban in a positive way.
And that’s the trouble with people like Tony. They just don’t understand that times are changing. Now me, I’m a man of the 21st century but Tony’s a bit of a relic, like. He’s had the same dirty book shop for donkey’s year. The same rusty shutters. The same sun-bleached horoscope and trainspotting magazines in the window – as if the locals don’t know what he sells. Probably the same old porno mags in there, from the looks of it.
That’s why his business is going down the Swanny, to be honest. These days everyone can get their filth on their computer or even on their mobile phone. And for nowt. So, why go to a dump like this?
He’s got location issues, too. Used to be well posh round here when I was a kid but now it’s like holiday camp for smack heads. Once it gets dark, it’s that Michael Jackson ‘Thriller’ video all over again.
My boss, Captain Cutlass, has told Tony to diversify. Maybe get in a couple of one-armed bandits, scaffolder’s lap tops and the like. Or some of the duty free ciggies that the Poles and the Euthanasians sell. But Tony’s stuck in his ways.
Oh, and here’s another thing. These days, it’s all about presentation skills. It’s not what you say, it’s how you say something that counts. That’s why I’m very careful about what I call myself when I turn up at Tony’s gaff.
I’m a factotum, you see. Now, I know what you’re thinking: What’s a friggin’ factotum when it’s at home? Well, I’ll tell you. It’s someone who sorts stuff out for someone else. Bit of this. Bit of that.
The bloke I sort stuff out for is an entrepreneur, although some people call him a gangster. And he’ a right head the ball, with it. His name’s Captain Cutlass. Well, that’s not his real name. His real name’s Jordan but no one calls him THAT these days.
Cutlass is a sea coal baron which means he’s got a bunch of lads who drive jeeps down to the beach at low tide and dig up coal. He’s made a packet, he has. Not that he needs it. Before he got into the sea coal game, Cutlass made a mint smuggling booze and ciggies and that into the docks. He used to stand at the front of one of the boats waving this massive friggin sword about. Hence the nickname. Although I think the sword was actually a rapier.
Anyroad, old Tony’s a bit thick, like, and I doubt he knows the difference between a factotum and a totem pole. So, what I say is that I’m a ‘representative’ of Mr Cutlass. See? I don’t even say I work for Cutlass. What I say is I just ‘represent’ him. It’s not the same, like. More official.
I say that Mr Cutlass isn’t very happy with Tony’s financial contributions and that he would appreciate it if Tony increased his monthly payments, since he’s been getting a bit behind.
After a bit of the to-and – fro, I have to be proactive and take the initiative, don’t I? I break one of Tony’s thumbs. And then the other. So, he’s screaming and turning red and telling me that he’s got nowt. The cupboard is bare.
After a couple more slaps I come up with the idea of torching his shop to get the insurance and pay off Cutlass and a little consultation fee for me. The only problem is that Tony hasn’t paid the insurance since God was a bairn.
And now it seems like Tony has a problem. Except, that these days, we say that there are no problems, only challenges. So, yes, our Tone has a righty nasty friggin’ challenge ahead of him.
* * *
I’m outside the old Odeon cinema finishing my curry and chips when the BMW pulls up.
‘Get in,’ shouts Captain Cutlass, turning down ‘Tiger Feet’. No fucker else in this day and age listens to Mud, but Cutlass is a even more of a relic than Tony Amerigo. Big black, spidery quiff. Teddy Boy suits. The full whack.
‘Just the man I’ve been looking for,’ says Cutlass.’
‘Aye?’ I say.
‘Oh, aye,’ he says, sniffing a bit and looking me up and down.
‘Tony Amerigo,’ he says spraying the inside of the car with peach deodorant. He’s a right poncy twat sometimes, is Cutlass.
‘Oh, aye,’ I say, playing it cool.
‘How did it go?’ says Cutlass.
‘Well, it was … challenging,’ I say
Cutlass looks me up and down.
‘And what the bollocks does that mean in the Queen’s English?’ he says.
‘Our Tony has … issues, ‘ I say
‘Aye?’ he says.
‘Oh, aye,’ I say.
‘And what type of issues are these?’ says Cutlass.
‘Financial issues,’ I say.
Cutlass shakes his head.
‘I reckon the daft twat’s going to have some mortality issues soon, then,’ he says.
‘Aye,’ I say. ‘I’ll face that challenge tomorrow. Fancy a pint?’
Here it is barely Grimace;
Time to deck the malls.
Wish you a hairy crossbus;
Fall down all the golden balls.
Hark the Harold angles bring
Glory to the edge-lord bling.
Dashing through the pub,
With a one-horse foamy ale,
Oh, what fun it is to slide
Through tat that’s cheap on sale.
Grimble bells, Batman tells,
Robin to get stuffed.
Mangles we have heard on high,
Sweetly sleeping rough.
For that Galileo.
Tonight, I went for a M.R.I. scan
An hour of trying to lay completely still
Inside a tube that makes really loud
Space noises. Wom – wom – wom –
Wom – wom – wom – wom – wom – wom
Bzzzzfffzzzt ! Bzzzzfffzzzt ! Wom – wom – wom – wom – wom .
After about 45 minutes
I realised that it was like Lou Reed’s
“Metal Machine Music”, mixed with
Spacemen 3. I began to get into it.
” Excuse me, Mr Copestick, can you
Please keep still. ” I hadn’t noticed that
My toe was tapping.
Former heroin addict Tommy Shakes is a perennial screw up. He’s an habitual criminal with a long-suffering wife, a young son, and dog called Rommel. He’s also a heavy-duty booze hound looking for a heist that will pay enough for him to get back into his wife’s good books. He gets his chance when he meets a man called Smallwood but things run far from smoothly. Rob Pierce’s Tommy Shakes is a visceral and funny blend of lowlife crime fiction and tragicomedy. Think of a lethal cocktail of Charles Bukowski and Eddie Bunker and you’re halfway there. Highly recommended.
Piggy Malone (Ronnie Barker) and Charley Farley (Ronnie Corbett) are private detectives who investigate a mystery about a murdered family, featuring Sue Lloyd as Blanche Brimstone. As soon as Piggy finds out about the murder in the newspaper, a decision’s made that means a trip to the country, and there’s a second murder during an unusual gathering. Also featuring are secretary Miss Whizzer and the rest of the Brimstone family, through which the detectives narrow down the culprit. The first seven episodes of Done to Death ended with the words “Only one thing was for certain. There would be very little sleep for anyone that night.”