All the Colours of the Town by Liam McIlvanney

All the Colours of the Town - book cover

An old photograph of an ambitious man hints at an unsavoury history.

Read a Short Extract


Already she is smiling, one foot on the stairs.  She stops to listen.  She isn’t scared.  This is a game they play most nights.  It’s important to have a story, a pretext.  This is part of the game.  She stands on the top step and listens for a sound, for something she can use when she gets downstairs, when her mother will turn towards her with that expression.  ‘I heard a noise,’ the girl will say.  ‘I was scared.’
    Her mother is the problem.  Her dad will let her stay.  If she makes it to his chair before her mother chases her out of the room.  Then she’ll curl up in his lap, in the flicker of the telly, and later he’ll carry her up to bed.
    It’s dark on the landing.
    The light on the landing is off.  She isn’t scared.  She thinks of herself as a ghost.  She can spook her parents - she knows this - when they come on her at such moments, barefoot and pale, out of context, moored in some halfway space, the staircase, the hall.
    She creeps down, step by step, feeling the carpet on her bare feet, twisting her soles a little with every step, flexing the fibres.  She feels invisible, almost, so little noise is she making.
    Some nights there are parties.  She hears the laughter in little sips when the lounge door opens, when somebody goes to the bathroom.  On those nights she avoids the lounge.  Instead she makes for the guest bedroom, where the coats cover the bed in a layered pyramid.  The women’s are soft, woolly, with collars of fur which give, when you root in their lifelike depths, a womanish sting of perfume.  Their silk linings, slippery cool, feel wet against the backs of your fingers.  The men’s are sterner, textured tweeds and twills, with the sharp assertive stench of stale tobacco; or crinkly raincoats with belts and buttons.  She lies on the bed, among the coats, her hand traversing them like a fish, dipping in and out of flaps and pockets.  Her fingers trace train tickets, paper hankies, loose coins, still folded banknotes, glasses-cases, bubble-moulded sheets of aspirin.  They pat car keys and ballpoint pens and cigarette lighters.  Their probing tips brush crumbs and lint and grit in the seams of pockets.
    Only once did she take something.  A book of matches.  The slim glossy packet swelling to its jerky spine, its cover tucked snugly into the jutting lip with its cold smudgy strip where the matches sparked.  The embossed logo troubling the ball of her thumb.  An object both worthless and exquisite.  Who would miss it? She folded her fingers over it, made for the door.
    The banister is smooth beneath her palm.  She thinks, as ever, about sliding down it, as they do in the movies, as they do in cartoons, as she has never done yet.  The paint is thick, smooth; her thumb catches a bubble, a little runnel that has dried and hardened, that she feels with her thumb now every night.
    She knows every step.  The loose stair-rod and then the landing, and then the bend in the stairs, and then the man.  A man in a green jacket, standing in the hall.  And he must have heard her - maybe she is not so silent after all - because his head turns.  At first the flash of his glasses is all that she sees but he steps to the side and shades his eyes and she sees him, a man like her father, with brown hair and glasses, but younger.  His face is kind, he has a kind face, and she smiles at him, a smile that expects his complicity, a smile that says, Don’t tell.
    He smiles back, and says something in a voice that is, not foreign exactly, but guttural, thick - and though she doesn’t catch the words she nods.
    Behind him, the front door is ajar.  He will let the cold in, she thinks.  The man looks at her.  She isn’t scared.  They often have visitors at this time, Daddy’s clients, men who stand sparely in the hallway till Daddy can see them.  When she comes downstairs on these nights, the men grin, almost shy, patting their pockets for coins.  When their business is finished and the men leave, she stands by her father’s legs as they say goodnight.  But tonight, stalled on the landing, poised to take the last few stairs she hears a noise, there’s a noise from the living room, like furniture being shifted, and a man comes briskly out and the two men are gone.
    She wants to call out, to bring the two men back, the green man with the nice smile.  But though the door is ajar and the night air - cold and sharp, Novemberish - tingles on her ankles, what she smells is the harsh burnt stink from the living room.
    She glances into the dark street.  For a moment she thinks about leaving, escaping into the night.  Already, the bright room at her back is a foreign land.  It’s not the living room but a room in a fairy tale, a dragon’s cave.  And now, for the first time she can remember, she regrets having left her bed.  She can feel the duvet’s warmth, the girl-shaped hollow that she’s left, but there is no way now to get back, to climb backwards up the stairs and into the past.  She closes the front door and leans against it, counting to ten.
    Her mother is kneeling by the sofa, at the far end of the living room.  Is it the rosary? is what the girl thinks: are they saying the rosary? But her mother is beside the sofa, not in front.  There is something on the floor; her mother is bending over something.  She flitters across but pulls up short.  She’s standing in something.  Her feet are wet - sodden, as though her bladder has emptied - and she flexes her toes, arching them free of the sopping rug.  But when she looks down, when her strained toes sink back to the carpet, what rises between them is black, brown, a cola-coloured puddle.  Without moving her feet she leans right over, canting her body to see beyond the couch, beyond her kneeling mother, to whatever has caused the mess.
    And now her bladder does empty, the water loosed in a startling spatter, like radio hiss, the warm turning speedily cool on her inner shins.
    He looks drunk, he looks like she’s seen him one time at New Year’s, slumped on the couch, pouting and heavy, impervious to her nudges and shunts,  Now, though, he lies on the carpet, his head against the wall-unit, his chin forced into his neck.  And around him, sustaining him it seems, is a black little lake, a darkling pool.  She looks to her mother but her mother is busy, frantic, pushing her dad in the chest, two-handed, once and then again, serious thumps that bounce his head against the wood.
    ‘Get someone!’ her mother is shouting.  ‘Get someone!’
    The girl turns, too quickly, skidding in the mess, down on one knee and one hand, before righting herself and skittering out.  There is sky, stars, branches against the street lights.  There is shouting now, clamour, a girl in a bloody nightdress whirling in the roadway, the sound of her shouting and animal cries.  And now the doors are opening, lights are coming on, stripes of yellow light along paths.

Chapter One

‘We’re like football players,’ Rix liked to say.  ‘Doesn’t matter what we do all week.  Just get it right on Saturday.’  He’d trot this out, early shift on Saturdays, out on the floor in his shirtsleeves, and we watched stolidly from our workstations, watched him gesture and pace, before swivelling back to our screens.  It was Rix’s shtick, motivational crapola, but how wonderful, it struck me now, tracking my screensaver’s tropical fish, how wonderful if this were true.  All week to idle in boyish play, and then one bright flurry of achievement.  Handshakes and drinks and the stereo loud on the drive home.
    The telephone rang.  It was Tuesday morning, quarter to twelve.  I’d been sat there since eight, cursing in turn every portion of our fledgling legislature, from the ruling coalition to the inoffensive Greens.  Conference was at twelve.  For an hour I’d been trawling the news sites for stories.  Holyrood had been in recess for a week and already the leads had dried up.  The MSPs had scattered, gone to ground in Portugal and Cyprus, shielding their eyes from the poolside glare.  First Minister William ‘Banker Bill’ MacLaren was taking his annual, ostentatiously frugal week on the Isle of Mull.  I was sitting it out till my own break began, five days from now, when the boys and I would be heading west; five days’ furlough on Carradale beach.  Currently, on a document headed ‘Schedule’, I had four curt lines of text: ‘Post office closures’; Knife crime statistics’; ‘Smoking ban challenge’; and ‘Gallup poll: support for Independence spikes.’  If each of these stories planned out, I might make a couple of nibs, a wing column.  Forget page leads.  Forget splash.  
    I’d spent two fruitless hours trying to raise my contacts.  Everyone’s email had an out-of-office auto reply promising prompt attention to your message at a specified future date, two weeks down the line, and giving a mobile number for urgent enquiries.  But the mobiles all rang out and went to voicemail.  I pictured them throbbing forlornly on hotel dressers while their owners piloted lilos with swipes of a trailing hand, or coaxed the next coarse-grained page with a lotion-free pinkie.  By now I was on to the blogs, sifting for dirt.
    On the fifth ring I picked up.  The click of the newsdesk secretary, putting someone through.
    ‘Gerry Conway?’
    ‘Must be a helluva story.’
    ‘What’s that’.
    ‘It must be a big story you’re working on, you’re too busy to return my calls’.
    ‘Who is this?’
    ‘No time to follow a lead, even when it’s served right up to your desk.’
    ‘Who is this?’
    ‘It’s Hamish Neil, Mr Conway.’
    He left a pause. I left if too. Finally he sighed, heavily.
    ‘I phoned you last night? I phoned you again this morning.  I emailed you.’  He blew out some air.  ‘About Peter Lyons?’
    His tone had flattened to a petulant bleat.
    ‘Hamish, is it? OK.  Thing is, Hamish, it’s a busy week.  I mean, if Lyons is poking his research assistant or taking his R&R in Blythswood square, it’s not really our thing. Why don’t you try somewhere else? Give the Record a call; the number’s on the website.’
    The silence had a wounded quality.  I could hear his lips working, the tongue detaching itself from his teeth.
    ‘It’s not your thing?’ He laughed.  ‘Is that right? Not your thing.  It’s not sex, Mr Conway.  It’s better than that.  It’s - he let the word come to him - ‘it’s a bit graver than that.’
    ‘Graver than sex?’ I snorted.  Something in his tone put my back up.  ‘Let’s have it then.  Amaze me.’
    His laboured breathing filled the silence.
    ‘The thing is,’ he said finally.  ‘I’d rather not do this over the phone.’
    ‘No? I’d have thought you did a lot of this over the phone.’
    ‘Wanking off.  Try the Record, Mr Neil.  Thanks for your call.’

Every day they plagued you.  Cranks and timewasters, slanderers and fantasists.  Breathless grievance merchants.  Whispering grasses.  People with the inside dope, the horse’s mouth, on various ministers and mandarins.  Rumours and smears and did-you-hear-the-one-about-so-and-so.  They floated this stuff on the blogs, but it wasn’t enough.  They needed the validation of a forty-point headline, the tangible tarnish of newsprint.  Every day I took a dozen of these calls.  Statistically, yeah, a portion would fly.  Some of them would hold water.  But how could you tell?  In the absence of evidence you were down to rules of thumb, intuition, the timbre of someone’s voice.
    I turned back to the screen but I couldn’t focus.  I kept hearing Neil’s flummoxed laugh, the bewilderment in his throat as I pulled the plug on him.  At the start of the call his voice was hearty, voluptuous with assurance.  He was practically purring.  And this is the flip side of smugness: he would hardly have sounded so smug if he didn’t have something good.  He had mentioned an email.  I opened Eudora and clicked on my inbox.
    I scrolled down my messages.  Aside from layered swathes of spam, highlighted in tangerine font, my inbox was clogged with comments on last week’s copy.  Points of information.  Bulletins from interest groups.  Obscene rants and sectarian slurs; flamboyant denunciations in wide-eyed capitals.  I was harried by madmen.  Indignant missives from halfway around the globe.  The letters page was no longer enough; now people weren’t happy till they’d made it personal, till they’d helped you to a perception, point by pernickety point, of the manifold levels on which your work sucked.
    Finally, amid the promises of penis enlargement, offers of Viagra and cheap non-prescription drugs, I spotted it.

Subject: Peter Lyons
Mister Conway,
I have some information on your friend in Justice.  Don’t tell me you’re not interested.  You can reach me on 07909 738326.
Hamish Neil.

I hit ‘delete’ and exited Eudora.  Piss or get off the pot, Mr Neil.

Copyright © Liam McIlvanney, 2009