A Long Time Dead - Chapter 18
There were set procedures to follow when evacuating the building - in case of fire, bomb scare, or other such emergencies - which had first been formulated during the war when effective evacuation meant saved lives - back in the days when the annual dinner dance at the Cranberry Hotel in Manchester Piccadilly was still the most eagerly anticipated evening of the working calendar. And following the dinner, speeches and wine toasting, the whole of the dining hall would join in a rousing rendition of everyone's favourite ‘Down Middletown Way'. But all that was in the past - the dinner dances had stopped in 1969. And as far as Ted Janis the Safety Officer was concerned, if the twice-monthly fire alarm practice drills all ran as smoothly as this one, then there'd be no need for the twice-monthly practices in the first place. But then again he'd be out of a job, so why argue the toss when it was a cheese and pickle barm cake you wanted in the first place. As for everyone else, why look a gift horse in the mouth? Any excuse not to work, and if all it meant was standing in the car park then it was cheap at the price. With a bit of luck they'd be out there for a long time coming. Long enough to find something really interesting to take up the time - especially if the rumours were true about Acomb Street. And after about five minutes there was so much going on in the car park that even if anyone had said anything about the gun siege at number 10 Acomb Street, and Darren Molloy Pearson holding his wife and son Darren Junior hostage with an AK Kalashnikov automatic he'd bought down the pub, they wouldn't have taken the slightest bit of notice anyway.
Latin American dance classes run by Marcus and Andrea Thompson. Second runners-up in the 1963 Lower Broughton ballroom competition, Salsa section, the medals were still on the mantelpiece after all these years. Not to mention three poker games, a bridge class, two pub quizzes and a debating session on ‘The Chip Pan - the greatest invention since the wheel?' And if that wasn't enough, almost all of the cars had their boots open, selling everything from Mills and Boon paperbacks, second-hand Tupperware, home-made cakes and scones, Ann Summers exotic lingerie and sex-toys, car batteries, X-rated video tapes, tarot card predictions, homeopathic medicines and acupuncture sessions - £2.50 per hour including instructions on breathing and meditation. Mavis McCormick and her makeshift hairdresser's set up by the medical centre unit next to the main office - the nearest place to a hot water tap and electric sockets, and if it started to rain there was always the unit itself for shelter. Never mind that Ken Masters, one of the clerks in the Wages Department, or Daffodil Morrissey to his friends, wanted to use one of the electric sockets for his guitar amplifier. As far as Daffodil Morrissey was concerned, a ready-made crowd like this was too much of a godsend, a ready-made crowd to listen to his oft-practised rendition of Johnny Marr's guitar riff from the classic ‘What Time is Now?' by The Smiths. None of which was cutting any ice with Mavis.
‘I'd help out if I could,' said Mavis, ‘but I've a two-thirty blue rinse in five minutes, Phil Smart is down for a full perm at three and there's at least five on standby in case of cancellations. You're not looking at anything being free before four-thirty at least.'
And there by the security guard's office, Dot Brindley from Purchases had set up a deck chair and large umbrella and was offering astrology, palm reading and tarot card predictions, £1.50 for fifteen minutes which was double the usual rate - all to be expected really, market forces being what they were.
Amongst all this was Matt, who had set up a small booth the size of a telephone box and was offering budget flights to the Canaries, Costa del Sol, Majorca, Benidorm, Ibiza, anywhere that was sunny really, and near Spain.
‘We've had the idea for a long time now. Cut out the middle man, there's a packet to be made, I'm telling you.'
It wasn't long before the car park became so chocker with shoppers and lookers on that after a while the buses from the Welston Old Road had to be diverted to make an extra stop outside the factory gates to cope with the influx of passengers. And in case of further congestion, the local radio stations had traffic bulletins every fifteen minutes given by two helicopters flying overhead advising drivers on possible alternative routes. Even so, the camera crews from the Granada Studios on Quay Street had no problems getting through, and in no time at all they'd set up shop and were in the process of interviewing Irene and her ex-husband Ralph. None of which had been the crew's intention when they had left the studios that afternoon. Originally they'd been sent as back-up to the crew doing the main report on the gun siege at number 10 Acomb Street. If Irene had had any idea that morning that she'd be doing an interview for the telly then she would have put on a new dress, or at least a new pair of high heels. But that was always the case, she was always being caught out, just like the sudden reunion with her ex-husband Ralph who she hadn't seen in six years, who just happened to be passing on his way to the bookies when he noticed all the commotion and thought he'd pop over for a look.
If anyone had asked George whether he minded not being on the telly, then George would have said with all honesty that he wasn't bothered in the slightest, even though there might well have been a reason to interview him, seeing as it was almost twenty years ago to the day that the police found the body of his best mate, all curled and strapped up in a brown canvas sack in the airing cupboard like it was Christmas; in the airing cupboard of the house of that couple who killed all them kiddies on the moors. Folk round 'ere still don't like to talk about it much. No, George was quite relieved actually. And besides, he had quite enough to keep him occupied - a line of over twenty-five people waiting outside his kiosk decked out with a curtain like a confessional, wanting to talk to him. This was another of Matt's ideas - an old portaloo left over from when the extension to the office block was built, set up as a portable confessional. Only it was George who was doing most of the talking, which was understandable enough. It wasn't every day that your best mate was found dead in a canvas bag in an airing cupboard, however long ago. Still, even Matt had to admit it would have been a bit much to charge them fifty pence and all.
‘Make it twenty-five pence,' said Matt, ‘and if business drops off, knock sommat off. Not too much mind you, you still owe me ten weeks' pool money.
Not that George had any complaints. A chance like this might never come up again. So he was making the most of it and then some.
‘Still, I've no complaint, I suppose. Okay, so he was me best mate and all but when compared to others, I mean, take round here for example. Those streets of terraced houses across the road from the office gates. Acomb Street, Peter Road, Alexandra Street and a couple of the others if me memory serves me right. Page fifty-six of the A to Z. Co-ordinates 5E to be exact, I looked it up the same afternoon Reg Prentice told me about it. I'm telling you, it's mind blowing, that's all I can say, mind blowing. Whole streets of men, decimated like that, all the men that were able to fight that is, with it being in the First World War. There's a big brass plaque on the factory gates with all their names embossed in gold-plated italics in alphabetical order, Reg said. Battle of the Somme or one of those battles, you couldn't tell one from the other, Reg said, up to their eyes in mud and corpses. He's read about all that stuff in the library, has Reg. To do with some research he's doing. He says he's writing a book. I mean, whole streets of men. Imagine it, eh? No of course you can't and why should you, eh? It's beyond imagination, that's what it is, just beyond imagination. And thank goodness as well, don't you think, I mean there are just some things that are, well, how can I put it, there are just some things that are best left only to the imagination.'
Meanwhile, Henry was at home, having sneaked away just after the fire alarm went off. A chance for an early start seeing as it was a Thursday, too good an opportunity to miss. Which was a pity for the spare camera crew because although reunion pieces were perfect for the late-night feel-good slots, when push came to shove, a cross-dressing engineer at a north-west engineering company would leave most pieces standing, hands down, and then some. But could you imagine Henry agreeing to being interviewed on the telly? Still, that camera crew didn't know what it was missing:
‘Take you lot for example. You probably thought you'd be doing one of those feel-good pieces for the late-night slots, not worth getting out of bed for, I hear you say. Well there you go, just goes to show, doesn't it, don't count your chickens and all that. But who'd have thought, eh? Makeup tips from a cross-dressing engineer whose main philosophy in life is based on obscure mathematical formulae expressing the relationship between electromotive forces, electric currents and the resistance in a circuit, developed by a German physics professor at the University of Munich in 1827. And to what am I referring? It's funny you should ask.'
Not that this was any concern of the main camera crew. They were here to do a job, and one job only. And as long as the batteries were fully charged and no kids or dogs about to cause a nuisance then fingers crossed, it would all be done by tea-time, bar the shouting.
And back in the office building, in the lift in fact, if anyone had bothered to check, Ron Wild was fast asleep, which wasn't surprising what with all the shouting and screaming he'd been up to but still, it had been a fantasy of his for a long time now. Being stuck in a confined space, helpless and trapped, unable to escape. Buried alive in a coffin, locked in a small toilet, the smaller the better - so long as there was enough air to breathe. Why he hadn't thought of the lift before, God only knew. It was ideal really, a minute's walk from the shop floor. It was only pure luck that he'd been in the lift in the first place. Usually he sent his sick note by the internal mail box, but today he'd wanted to have a word with the Personnel Officer, face to face, to ask whether or not the rumours were true and if so, whether they would consider voluntary redundancy on medical grounds, on account of him being off sick so regularly. Bad back, high blood pressure, angina, swollen ankles - you name it, he'd had it, and he had doctors' notes if proof were needed. Still, an ill wind never blows as they say, and here he was, exhausted but satisfied from all that screaming and shouting, the helplessness of it all, which was exactly the point of the exercise. Being Faye Wray kidnapped by King Kong on top of the Empire State Building - oh my!