I was sitting in the foyer of a Mexican restaurant looking up the atrium of the Canary Wharf building, having my shoes shined and drinking a pint of Margarita. It was such a perfect moment I just had to ring somebody on my mobile phone and tell them about it.
I pulled the Motorola out of my jacket and flipped it open. The guy cleaning my shoes looked surprised, then suddenly very smug.
‘Hey, they still use those things?’ he chirped.
‘Long as somebody else is paying the bills,’ I said.
‘Wow. I thought those were museum pieces. Never see them nowadays. You want one of these.’
He shot back the cuff of his red shirt and waved his wrist at me. He was wearing a bright red Swatch bleeper watch, which even in the January sales had cost three times as much as the phone I was holding.
‘Can’t use that to call a cab,’ I said airily and punched a number in the memory.
Twenty-five floors above me, a phone rang and The Sarge answered with an irritable, ‘Yeah, what?’
‘Sarge, it’s Angel. You still working?’
‘On the last set-up. Where are you?’ he growled. He always put an unlit cigar in his mouth when he answered the phone. Made him sound tough.
‘Below you, in the Tex-Mex restaurant, having my shoes shined and drinking Margaritas.’
‘Did you say shoeshine?’
‘Yep. It’s policy. If you have to wait for a table, you get a free shoe- shine.’
‘You booked a table?’
‘No, you did. Lunch was part of the deal.’
I knew he wouldn’t mind and almost certainly had forgotten to book anywhere himself, but he let me hang there for a while as if considering it.
‘By the frosted pint mug,’ I tempted.
‘Good drink, Margarita. Contains all known food groups.’
‘Yeah, salt and tequila,’ I said, robbing him of his standard line.
‘Right,’ he said, recovering. ‘So get some more lined up. We’ll be down in fifteen minutes.’
‘You got my girls up there, Sarge?’
‘Course I have and I’ve been the perfect gentleman. Haven’t even hinted that they might like to get their kit off.’
‘Good man. I know it must be a strain.’
‘Tell me about it. Hey, you don’t suppose they would, do you?’
He had dropped his voice. The girls must have been close.
‘I’m at the bar, Sarge, and your tab is running,’ I said and snapped the phone closed.
The guy cleaning my shoes sighed at the naffness of it all, but thought he had better make conversation if he was going to get a tip.
‘And what sort of music does sir like?’ he smarmed, just like a hairdresser asks where you have been on holiday.
‘Jazz, actually,’ I said, moving my feet to make life more difficult for him.
‘That John Coltrane, he was the business, eh?’ he said without looking up, but I could hear him thinking maybe Coltrane was too modern for someone my age.
‘Gimme Armstrong every time,’ I said, playing along.
‘Louis Armstrong?’ he looked tip at me, genuine surprise in his eyes. ‘Hey, that We Have all the Time in the World – that was a great song. What a voice. He done anything since?’
That did it. His tip was history.
He probably thought I was.
The Sarge got his nickname back in the eighties when he wore an old army combat jacket with three bars on one sleeve whenever he was on assignment. The jacket had enough pockets to store all the film he needed, spare lenses, two back-up Olympus Trips and his mobile phone. The camouflage design even came in handy when he was covering Animal Liberation protests and sit-ins aimed at stopping motorway building. But in more urban settings – the Poll Tax riots, the odd student protest, Gay Rights or militant disabled marches – he found himself confused with the protesters and, after a while, found it difficult to get private medical insurance. Then, on his way to a friend’s wedding, he stopped off to cover a Lesbian Avengers rally in Whitehall and, because he was wearing a suit, didn’t get truncheoned or trampled by a police horse. Since then, he had always worn a suit. The suits got better and now he wouldn’t carry a mobile phone in case it spoiled the cut. He had someone else to carry his cameras.
‘So how you doing, Angel?’ he asked, sitting down opposite me.
I had claimed a free table for two, thus depriving The Sarge of his complimentary shoeshine.
‘Not as well as you if you can afford this place,’ I said. ‘I’ve ordered chilli.’
‘Cool,’ he said.
‘I hope not.’ The Sarge liked his food hot and spicy. If it didn’t hurt, he rated it nutritionally lacking.
‘It’s OK. Food’s good here.’ He waved limply at a passing waitress. ‘Beers, love. Make ’em Dos Equis.’
The waitress smiled and said, ‘Sure thing, right with you,’ and hurried off to cater to his every whim. I’d been kept waiting for half an hour. My shoes were like mirrors. If I’d have stood near the waitress’s skirt, I could have been arrested.
‘You driving?’ he asked.
‘Nope. Knew I’d be meeting you.’ And talking money, I added mentally. ‘So I left the wheels back in Hackney and jumped the Light Railway.’
‘Wise move, me old mate,’ he nodded wisely. ‘There’s a coupla good pubs I want to show you. And anyway, security’s as tight as a duck’s arse round here. They’re frightened of car bombs but I reckon it’s not terrorists, it’s people with a down on the fashion editor. They even stop the black cabs here and ask the drivers for their names. The dumb fuckers at the gate got five Hugh Grants in one day last month and didn’t notice a thing.’
‘That was probably a record,’ I agreed.
‘You still driving that black taxi of yours?’
‘A new one. Well, a new old one, if you see what I mean.’
‘What happened to the old old one?’
‘It died on me,’ I said, not wanting to elaborate. ‘So how did things go?’
‘Ace. Your girlies got on like a house on fire with that fag-hag of a fashion editor. She was over them like a rash. I think it’s safe to say they passed the audition.’
‘Audition?’ I asked, saluting him with a beer bottle as my order arrived.
‘That’s what I call it. Our beloved Associate Editor (Fashion) does not have meetings any more; she auditions people to see if they will perform to her liking, if and when they’re allowed to grace her pages in the paper.’
‘So what exactly does this audition involve?’ I asked between sucks on my bottle. Mexican restaurants were about the only places you could get Mexican beer now the fashion had faded and I hadn’t been able to say, ‘Buddy, can you spare a lime?’ to a barman for months.
‘It’s all about presentational skills,’ said The Sarge, adding a spoonful of raw onion to his chilli and stifling a belch. The Ass Ed (Fash) has her eye on multi-media opportunities, if you know what I mean.’
‘No I don’t, Sarge. I’m just the talent-spotter in all this.’
‘Yeah, yeah, and you’ll get your cut.’ He waved his spoon at me. ‘But it’s like a police reward these days, you don’t get the cash unless you get a conviction. There was a time when you could spot a pair of jugs bouncing down Tottenham Court Road, whip out the old Nikon and snap, flash, there was a portfolio. Slip it into the News Editor round the pub and wallop – you ’ad a commission for the next Page Three girl and a star was born.’
‘Assuming you could persuade them to get their kit off,’ I noted dryly.
‘That was never a problem,’ The Sarge said, straight-faced. ‘But nowadays, we’ve got to go for the joint deal. It’s not enough to find a new face any more – the bleedin’ primary schools are full of wannabe models. You’ve got to get the face that goes with the clothes that goes with a story that can be put over in the style magazines and then on daytime television and then into mail order premium offers.’
‘So it’s a business. Wasn’t it ever thus?’
‘Naw, it used to be two businesses, maybe three. You had the big name designers who went over the top at the big fashion shows to shock their way on to the fashion pages. You ever see anyone wearing some of that stuff? Bin-liners, arses hanging out, more tinfoil than a turkey farm, skirts for men, cod-pieces for women; it’s all bollocks, designed to hype the designer’s name and the supermodels on the catwalk.’
‘Ah, come off it, Sarge. People like you might photograph the outrageous bits, but the big catwalk shows are meant to provoke, spark off ideas, get people talking. That’s where the fashion biz can experiment with new materials, colours, ways of cutting cloth.’
He narrowed his eyes at me, both barrels.
‘You shagging a fashion PR lady?’
‘Not exactly. But I’m learning a lot through the girls.’
‘I’ll bet you are,’ he smirked, wiping his chilli bowl with the last of the garlic bread. ‘Which one?’
‘That’s for me to know and you to wonder. You said there were two or three fashion businesses.’
‘Fashion photography, I meant. The old Fash Flash. Yeah, there’s the catwalk crap – the season – the shows. Most of the good shows are London now, actually. But then there’s the standard, bread-and-butter stuff, which you can set your watch by.
‘It’s spring and it’s going to be a riot of pastel shades and bright neon, day-glow colours for the young at heart with hemlines up.’ The Sarge had placed both hands on his hips and was turning his head like a swan watching tennis. ‘Lime green could be a lucky colour this year too. Then, suddenly it’s summer and we’re shrieking bright prints, with hemlines up again, or down if there’s a gypsy look. If it’s a leap year, throw in some natural calico or linen. But before you know it, those autumn leaves are falling: reds, purples, browns and mustard yellows and – yes – the coat is coming back. Hemlines down and if the year ends in an even number, chuck in a velvet revival.
‘And that’s it. Year in, year bloody out. That’s the business That’s what women wear.’
‘What about winter?’
‘Doesn’t exist except in the fur trade, which is so incorrect it’s a sin to even suggest a photo spread on it. Throw on an extra layer of thermal undies and keep the skirts short. It’s true. You’ll see more short skirts in London when it snows than you ever do in the summer. It must be a femme thing. You know, like those macho bastards up north who go out drinking in shirtsleeves even though their nuts are frozen solid, just to prove how hard they are.’
‘So, the third part of the business?’ I prompted, scoping anxiously for a waitress – for more beer, not fashion tips.
‘What the trade calls NBBWs.’
The Sarge went into Smug Mode, picking his moment.
‘Not Bought By Wearer. Undies. Naughty knickers. Basques, boob-enhancing bustiers, matching suspender belts. One-piece satin things with no release valve. The memory lingeries on – geddit? Any colour you like as long as it’s black or red.’
A waitress – short, black, pretty and world-weary – had materialised at our table.
‘Two more beers?’ I nodded meekly. ‘I’ll make them cold ones,’ she said.
‘Mostly bought by men, always good value for the Christmas and Valentine’s Day markets and the number of times I’ve flogged the story that suspenders and stocking tops are coming back, you wouldn’t believe.’
‘I think I just might. You still freelance?’
‘Too right, but I keep my contacts from the old Fleet Street days. That’s why I thought of this place.’ He jerked a thumb skyward to the newspaper offices above us.
‘But the girls had to do this audition thing first, right?’
‘Yeah, like I said. Once over for the frocks themselves, then see how they look on the one that’s the model and then the pitch from the one who looks after the business. That’s Amy isn’t it?’
‘No. Amy’s the designer. Lyn does the business,’ I said, before I had a chance to regret it.
‘I’ll bet she does,’ he leered. ‘Is she the one you’re… ?’
‘And Thalia is the model. And don’t forget to pronounce it with a “th”, not a “t”. She’s very sensitive.’
‘And in all the wrong places, knowing my luck,’ he sighed, but I didn’t encourage him. ‘What sort of a name is that anyway?’
‘I think it’s Finnish,’ I said to throw him off the scent.
‘So, it’s Thalia, Amy and Lyn, eh? Quite a backing group.’ He stared thoughtfully at the beer bottle in his hand, then realised it was empty. A spark jumped a gap in his brain. ‘So, how did you come to meet them – and which one are you screwing?’
I waved at the waitress for more beer and took a deep breath. Most people didn’t believe the story. The trouble was, The Sarge would.
‘I was in a pub,’ I said as I had a hundred times, ’minding my own business, nursing a pint and working on the meaning of life… ’
‘Yeah, yeah. Fast forward please.’
‘Well, the three of them were in there, at a table on round six or maybe seven of Moscow Mules and looking like they’d be out of order by closing time, so, naturally, I had them clocked. Then they started this argument about who had the best legs.’
‘You’re kidding,’ breathed The Sarge.
‘I don’t have to, but you can jump the plot. Longest, best shape, years of ballet school, born with long ones, always my best feature, that sort of stuff. Then it got on to muscle power and who had the most tension just here.’
I stood up and dug the fingers of both hands into the back of my thighs.
‘All three of them, standing up by now, hitching their skirts up and feeling each other’s thigh muscles.’
‘And your eyeballs have gone telephoto, right?’
‘I may have glanced their way,’ I conceded. ‘I must have done, because one of them called me over and asked me to judge which one had the best thigh muscles.’
Now I had his attention.
‘You mean they asked you to feel them?’
‘Of course. How else can you judge a muscle?’
‘In the middle of a pub?’
‘It was a girlies’ night out. The pub had seen worse.’
‘All three of them?’
‘Well, six, actually. Legs, that is.’
‘And you had the final call?’
‘Absolutely. Independent Adjudicator they called me.’
‘And I bet you got off with the winner.’
I just smiled at that one but The Sarge wouldn’t let it lie. ‘But how did you decide who had the best thighs?’
Also by Mike Ripley (published by The Do-Not Press):
Double Take (2002)
Edited by Mike Ripley (with Maxim Jakubowski):