ShortRead of 18 June
What's the story:
M.P.Wright's début novel isn't your standard crime mystery. Yes, the character JT Ellington is your average ex-cop with a shoulder full of chips and a dark past, but this isn't a story about a reluctant detective glowering over whisky glasses.
Heartman takes place in a dim, rotten winter in Bristol, 1965. When JT leaves his native Barbados in search of a better life in England, he finds only hostility and prejudice. A local mogul approaches him to help find a missing young deaf and mute West Indian woman, and JT soon finds himself adrift in a murky world of prostitution and kidnapping ignored by the police.
Release date:1 July
There’s only so much staring through the bottom of an empty glass a man can do when he’s got less than one and ten in his back pocket. Not enough to get me another pint, that was for damn sure. I tipped out the remaining copper coins from my battered brown leather wallet on to the copy of the Bristol Evening Post that I had spent the last hour trawling through in a desperate attempt at finding myself a job. I’d bottomed out on that and was now looking to get drunk.
I was sat in the Star and Garter pub on the corner of Brook Road, in the St Pauls area of Bristol. I’d been in the bar for the better part of three hours nursing my drink and was in need of a refill. I’d rented myself a place nearby shortly after arriving in Britain and the Star had become my local, but I was hardly a regular and the chances of me putting anything on the slate weren’t happening. I was outta work and broke.
Outside, the snow was three inches deep on the pavement. It was my first experience of an English winter and my fascination with the stuff had soon worn off. I’d no interest in trudging back to my pokey terraced digs to sit and freeze my ass off in front of a two-bar electric fire that I couldn’t afford to put on.
I had nothing in to eat, apart from three tins of Libby’s canned fruit in the larder and a half-bottle of milk that was stinking my kitchen out. The place was as bare and unwelcoming as when I’d first moved in there.
In the March of 1964 I’d sailed from Bridgetown, Barbados. It was a ten-day journey across the Atlantic to Southampton with the promise of work at Wills’ tobacco company at the end of it. My uncle Gabe had worked there for over a decade and had pulled a few strings to help me out. I’d stuck it out for ten months before buss-mout’in’ the foreman, Teddy Meeks, in the face after he’d accused me of thieving cigarettes. I didn’t like him and I’m pretty sure he hated me. The allegations that I was a thief were untrue. I’d sucked up all his bullshit and jibes since I’d first been introduced to him by Walter Keats, the general manager, but it was the “nicking nigger” remark that had got me mean and he’d paid for it with a broken jaw.
Why, I don’t know, but I’d gotten away with the assault without any criminal charges. The fact that I had known that Teddy had been loading up boxes of two hundred cartons of Strand cigarettes onto the backs of delivery vans that would then find themselves in the social clubs and pubs all over Bristol city at knock-down prices with a nice little cut going to Meeks may have had something to do with it. Or perhaps it was because he’d heard a little of my past and my time with the police back home.
Whatever his reasons, Meeks’ own illegal activities would continue and he’d still no doubt be picking on some poor bastard back at the factory while I was scratching for the price of another pint.
Now, when I could afford to, I’d drink to forget the likes of men like Meeks, and a past that I had run from, a past that still had a grip on my soul and kept me awake at nights. I didn’t hold out much hope for lady luck to change things and I wasn’t the praying kind.
My mama had once told me, “Child, don’t you be praying too hard fo’ someting God don’t want you to have.” But tonight God was about to perversely answer an unspoken prayer and my late mama’s words would come back to haunt me from across the ocean in a way I’d never have thought possible.
“Buy you another one of those, son?”
Alderman Earl Linney stood over me, his hulking frame blocking out the glare of the gas lamp on the opposite wall. I’d seen Linney around giving the locals his warm-handshake routine and knew of his reputation as a successful businessman. It was rumoured that he had his fingers in just about every rich man’s pocket in the city, and if he was just about to stick them into his own to get me another drink, hell, I wasn’t about to say no.
“I’ll take a pint o’ Dragon Stout, thanks, man.”
Linney, silent for a moment, stared down at my paper, his eyes quickly scanning the contents of the opened pages before returning his gaze towards me.
“Dragon it is then. I’ll join you, if you don’t mind?”
“Makes no difference to me, brother, but you’ll find me pretty poor company.”
He smiled at me again, paying little attention to the remark I had just made. He took off his expensive camel-hair coat and laid it across the back of the chair next to me and sat his brown leather briefcase at the foot of it before walking to the bar.
Earl Linney’s rise within the city’s business community had been as meteoric as it was successful. After being demobbed from the Royal Air Force at the end of the Second World War, he’d come over from Spanish Town, Jamaica, and settled in Britain, where he then moved to Bristol. After working in a number of engineering factories he had set up in business, manufacturing aircraft parts for the Bristol Aeroplane Company at Filton. It had made him rich. He’d not rested on his laurels, and had carved himself a place in local politics and formed the West Indian Community Council. Speaking out against discrimination and with strong ties to the unions, he was known as a man of integrity and sat with the great and the good of the city, the washed and unwashed alike. He was an honorary Bristolian, made good from the colonies, so what the hell had dragged the alderman out on a freezing-cold Sunday night and why did he feel the need to be buying a stranger a drink? He’d picked on the wrong guy to engage in a bout of deep, meaningful conversation with, and for a moment I wondered if I looked that desperate for cash that the elderly Jamaican thought I was a batty boy and up for selling my body. If that was the case, then the old boy was soon gonna be losing some of his teeth and I’d probably be spending the night in a cold police cell.
Linney returned with the two pints of stout and sat opposite me on a short backless bar stool, sliding the glass of beer across the table, nodding towards the newspaper as he did so.
“Oh yeah, man, I’m just full of luck at the minute.”
I reached for the pint glass and sank half of it in three solid swigs; the strong, rich, treacly ale took the edge off my thirst and started warming my insides. It reminded me of home, sitting outside Barrington’s bar on the quayside at Carlisle Bay, where I would drink after coming off of duty. I started to relax, but only a little.
“You put your hand to anything?” Linney asked me dryly.
I felt that creepy politician patter coming on. I let him carry on with it. There might be another drink to be had out of him later.
“I sure do need to. My damn landlord’s about to kick me outta my place on Friday, so I’m not in a position to be choosey. Bristol Bus ain’t hiring either,” I said, with some sarcasm and a little irony thrown in for good measure.
Back in the summer of 1963 the Bristol Omnibus Company, which had a policy that coloured workers should not be employed as drivers or bus crew, had not expected a twenty-six-year-old black man, Paul Stephenson, to challenge them on a decision that had been upheld since 1951. Stevenson had changed all that after instigating a sixty-day boycott of the buses. He’d been joined by many supporters, finally seeing the overturning of the policy in the August of that same year.
It had been a gallant stand, but their victory was fleeting and I felt little had changed for men like me. It wasn’t uncommon to find signs taped to the windows and doors of public houses – “No Blacks, No Irish, No Dogs” – to remind us how unwelcome we were. Britain wasn’t the land of milk and honey, I was damn sure of that, but at least we got top billing on their list of undesirables.
Earl Linney now sitting opposite me was the exception to their rules. He was a man of colour made good. He glanced back down again at my newspaper and spoke without raising his head from the page.
“I may be able to offer you something, Mr Ellington.”
My surname tripped off the tip of his tongue as if he’d known me from birth.
“How the hell you know my name?” I asked the alderman suspiciously.
“A man in my position is advised to know certain people; let’s just say I’ve been asking around and I’m aware of you and your background.”
“What’d you know ’bout me and my background?”
“You’ve been in the country for just over ten months and you were involved in an altercation with a colleague at your previous employers, which now finds you looking through the situations vacant. Clearly a tobacco warehouse wasn’t your chosen profession. Let’s just say your name came up in quiet conversation. It’s your previous line of work that I’m interested in, and how you may be able to assist me.”
“I ain’t following you; there’s only a handful of people knew I was with the police force before I came over here, most of them would cross the street to avoid me, so whoever you’ve been talking to, they sent you to the wrong guy.”
“I’d be correct in thinking discretion was a quality much sought after in a police officer? It’s discretion I’m looking for, Mr Ellington, discretion and the ability to ask questions in our own community without arousing the suspicions of the people you’re asking.”
I could see why Linney made a good politician: he smiled in all the right places and when you asked him a difficult question he gave you the answer you wanted to hear. Whether he was speaking the truth was another matter, but hell, that could’ve been said of all politicians, in my opinion.
“A man in my position needs people he can trust; those kinds of people are few and far between, so naturally I value my trusted staff greatly. It is a member of my personal staff who I have concerns over. Her name is Stella Hopkins. She’s missing. We have not seen her at work nor has she returned home for the last ten days.”
“Well, I’m truly sorry ’bout that, Mr Linney, but I don’t see how I can help you or why you’re telling me any of this. But hey man, I’m grateful fo’ the beer; I sure as hell don’t have the money to buy you one back.”
“I don’t want another drink, thank you, but I may be able to address your financial difficulties, should you wish to consider my proposal. I’d like you to look into Miss Hopkins’ disappearance and to locate her current whereabouts. I’m sure a man with your talents, a discreet man such as yourself, could be useful when making inquiries for a third party.”
“What if she don’t want finding? Maybe your Stella’s found some guy and is shacked up with him somewhere. Maybe she’s happy an’ in love and she ain’t coming back. It happens.”
Linney appeared to be visibly shocked by my remarks, as if I’d touched a raw nerve.
“Stella is . . .” Linney hesitated, searching for the right word. “Stella is vulnerable, Mr Ellington; she is a simple soul with a pure, God-fearing heart. If she had met a man I would have known of it; she was not comfortable around strangers, especially men.”
“In what way is she vulnerable?” Despite my reservations, I thought I’d let him tell his tale a little longer.
“Some would say that Stella Hopkins is more child than woman. She is a mute and can barely read or write. She sees the world differently to you and me.”
“Differently? How does Stella see tings differently?” I was starting to become intrigued by the Jamaican’s description of this Hopkins girl.
“She sees the world in a very simple way, trusts very few. Mr Ellington, she’s naive, gentle. It’s those qualities that make me fear for her well-being. She’s a young woman who could easily be taken advantage of.”
“Why ain’t I heard any of this in here?” My finger tapped down on the open pages of the Bristol Evening Post in front of me.
Linney reached over to the chair where he’d left his raincoat and fumbled in the inside pocket, pulling out a small newspaper cutting. “This appeared on the bottom of page twelve of the Post, some four days ago. I contacted the editor, whom I know personally, and asked that he have his staff report on the matter. It should not surprise you to see that such a meagre amount of column space was allocated. Stella’s disappearance, as you can see, does not make for interesting print.”
I read the eleven lines of simple, factual prose.
Police are investigating the disappearance of Miss Stella Hopkins, a 22-year-old Black Female, of Number 45 Thomas Street, Montpelier, Bristol, who has been missing since Thursday January 8th at around 5pm after leaving her employers at Bristol City Council. Miss Hopkins is of slim build and approximately 5 ft 4 in. in height with short dark hair. If anyone has any information regarding her whereabouts could they please contact Detective Inspector William Fletcher at Bridewell station on Bristol 4362.
“Did Stella live on her own, Mr Linney?”
Linney hesitated before answering. “Yes, she has done since the passing of her mother. I knew Stella’s mother, Victoria, well; she died three years ago, cancer of the throat, quite tragic. Despite some obvious limitations, Stella coped admirably well living alone. We, that is, myself and my wife, Alice, provided the things that she was unable to do herself.”
“What kinda tings?” I asked him bluntly, wanting to get him to cut to the chase.
“Well, our help, of course. Stella doesn’t understand the value of money, so I pay the rent on her flat, we handle her bills. She’s paid a salary, Mr Ellington, but she knows little of what to do with it. Alice will cook and she takes hot meals to Stella’s flat every other day; otherwise, she’s quite self-sufficient.”
“You say she worked at the council offices fo’ you: doing what exactly?”
“There was always something for Stella to do. She had certain duties, let’s say, things that only she could do.”
“Are you talking about her making tea and tidying your desk?”
“Absolutely not. I told you, she is a valued and trusted member of my staff.”
I wasn’t sold on what I’d been hearing. Something about it stank, and my guts told me to drink up and get the hell out. If Linney thought that his lost Little Orphan Annie tale was gonna tug at my heart strings for the price of a pint, he was mistaken. I knew I wasn’t that cheap. Thing is, so did Earl Linney.
“I’m willing to pay for your discretion, Mr Ellington; I’m willing to pay you to ask the kind of questions a man in my position can’t, without people . . .”
Again, he carefully considered his words before continuing.
“Without people wanting to know why I’m asking, shall we say.”
“When you say people, by that you mean the police?”
Linney’s round-the-houses way of answering my questions was beginning to grate on me, and my mentioning the police had unsettled him. He sat with a sour expression on his face, like a cat had just took a shit under his nose.
“All the usual methods of inquiry into the matter that concerns me have been unsuccessful; I have many contacts within Bristol City Constabulary, Mr Ellington, and they continue to question and search for Stella. All their conventional investigations appear to have failed. I could consult a private agency, but if the police cannot get people to come forward and talk, I doubt if a white detective could either. It is the unconventional I’m seeking, hence the reason we are talking tonight.”
Linney took a sip of his beer: he was weighing me up like a prizefighter before landing the knock-out blow, saving his best till last.
“I’d be willing to pay you five pounds a day, plus expenses, for your services.”
He put his hand into the inside pocket of his jacket and pulled out a brown, wage-packet-sized envelope and dropped it onto the newspaper.
“That should get you started,” he said with all the arrogant self-assurance of a man used to getting what he wanted.
I picked up the envelope and peeled it open. Inside, neatly folded, were ten crisp five-pound notes and a small black and white photograph of Stella Hopkins.
Linney got up from the stool and reached for his raincoat, pulling it over his large arms and tugging at the lapels to bring it into shape across his chest, then buttoning it. He picked his briefcase up from the floor, and then looked back down at me, waiting for my reply.
I downed the remainder of my pint and looked at the alderman.
“So where can I contact you?”
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(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)