A Bit More 50s

“Good morning, Mr. Markham.”

            He glanced up, thoughts vanishing behind him.

            “Hello, Joyce.” She was bundled in the old back wool coat she only shed at the height of summer. Long and shapeless, it made her look like someone who’d stepped out of another century. She worked in the Kardomah down on Commercial Street, a cheery enough soul in her sixties with grey hair curled tight against her scalp, covered with a headscarf.

            “You can seem ‘em all remembering, can’t you?”

            “Do you blame them?”

            “Not a bit, luv. We just need to make sure we never forget and let it happen again.”

            At 10, Albion Place he pushed hard on the door, forcing it over the hump in the lino and walked up to the second floor, past the typing bureau and unlocked the door of his office. Daniel Markham, the plain brass plaque read, Enquiry Agent.

            One pace inside and he stopped. Someone had been here. Everything look right, the arch files on the bookcase, folders neatly aligned, the ashtray emptied and the chair squared against the desk. But there was a faint scent, a hint of bay rum, trapped in the closed room that shouldn’t have been there.

            Whoever broke in had been neat; they’d even set the lock behind them. If the burglar hadn’t been so vain he’d never even have guessed. He unlocked the drawers of the desk, searching through, but nothing seemed to be missing. Even the Webley Mark Six he’d brought home from the service was there.

            Another twenty minutes and he was ready to swear that nothing had been taken. Even the smell had vanished. He sat back in the chair and lit a Gold Leaf, watching the smoke rise to the ceiling. A careful burglary where nothing was stolen. A coshing with no robbery. It didn’t add up. What the hell was going on?

 

By dinnertime he didn’t have any answers. The telephone hadn’t rung and the postman hadn’t delivered any letters. An empty morning. He put the trilby on his head and strolled around to Briggate, glancing in Burton’s window before going next door to eat at Lyons.

            The windows were damp with condensation and the air heavy and warm. Someone had left a copy of the Manchester Guardian at the table and he skimmed through it as he ate. He’d just pushed the plate aside and settled back with a cup of tasteless coffee when a hand touched his should and the fat man eased into the seat across from him with a grunt, placing his hat on the table.

            “I hear you were lucky not to end up in the cells last night, Dan.” Roger Baker took a briar pipe from his jacket, a box of Swan Vestas out of the waistcoat stretched across his belly and lit up, puffing patiently until he was happy with the way it drew. “Three sheets to the wind, the copper on the beat said.” He turned to the hovering waitress. “A cup of tea and a slice of jam roll, please luv. My friend here’s paying.”

            Baker was a detective sergeant with Leeds Police, a man with a wide, florid face and deep knowledge of Leeds behind his soft eyes. He’d started out as a young constable in 1935, his service interrupted by the war. He’d seen the city grow and change. Not much happened that escaped his ears.

            “I know you’re young and you need your beauty rest, lad. But your own bed’s a better place than Merrion Street.”

            Markham bristled. At twenty-five he was half the age of the other man, and Baker never let him forget it. Still wet behind the ears, he said. Hardly out of nappies.

            “I was coshed, Mr. Baker. Got the lump to prove it.”

            “What did they get?”

            “Nothing,” he answered and Baker pursed his lips.

            “I know they have cosh boys down in London. What do they call them?”

            “Teddy boys.” He’d seen the pictures in the Sunday papers, posing with their Brylcreemed hair and long drape jackets. But he’d never spotted one in Leeds.

            “Aye, that’s it. Bloody disgrace. Should birch the lot of them.” He put the pipe aside for the tea and the jam roll smothered in custard. When Baker ate, everything else stopped. He was a man who relished his food. Markham lit a cigarette and waited until the sergeant wiped his mouth with the serviette, the signal that he’d finished.

            “There’s something else. Someone broke into my office last night.”

            “What did they take?”

            “Nothing.”

            “Another nothing?” he asked with disbelief, taking a long drink. “Seems like you’ve got a whole lot of bugger all.” But his eyes gave him away. He was interested. “Sounds like someone has it in for you lad.” He relit the pipe, waving away a cloud of smoke. “Been doing summat you shouldn’t?”

            Markham shrugged.

            “No. I don’t even have any work at the moment. The last thing was a divorce. I turned the photographs over to the wife’s solicitor last week.”

            “Dirty business, divorce.” Baker grimaced. Dan knew the man had been married for a good twenty years, with two sons and a daughter.

            “It pays the bills.”

            “Aye, like as not.” Baker pushed himself up with a grunt and reached for his hat. “If owt else happens, you come and tell me, lad. Alright?”

            “Yes, Mr. Baker.”

            After the man left he pushed the coffee away, paid the bill and made his way through the crowds on Briggate. Cars and buses and delivery vans filled the road, a tram passing silently as the crossed the Headrow by Lewis’s. On New Briggate, next to the Odeon, he climbed the stairs. The door proclaimed Studio 20 and he rattled the handle until he heard someone muttering inside and a key turned in the lock.

            A short man with a long, dark beard and bleary eyes looked up at him.

            “Bloody hell, Dan, what do you want?” I thought you was the bread man.”

            He turned his back and Markham followed him into the attic room with its sloping ceiling and garish musicians wallpaper. An upright piano stood in the corner, a drum kit had been pushed against the wall, and folding chairs were stacked in a row.

            It was the only jazz club in Leeds. Probably the only one in Yorkshire, he thought. Music seven nights a week, going on until the last player gave up. They all came here when their gigs had finished, to sit in and jam, George Webb, Ken Colyer, Ronnie Scott. He’d come down and listened to them all, carrying on until dawn.

            He’d picked up a taste for jazz in Hamburg during National Service. Not that the Germans had any. They didn’t seem to have any music worth the name, just the desperation of finding enough food to keep body and soul together every day. But his intelligence work meant liaising with the American forces and one of them, Jimmy Powers, a slick little corporal from Ohio, had been a jazz nut. He’d set out to make a convert of Markham and he’d succeeded.

            There’d been good coffee – real coffee, not the NAAFI rubbish – and records from the PX, enough to start a collection. Then he was back on England, on Civvy Street. And Leeds was a wasteland for the new music.

            Someone had told him about Dobell’s down in London, and he spent far too much on their mail order service. And then Studio 20 had opened.

            “If you’re looking for Bob, he won’t be here while this evening.” The man filled a kettle at the sink and placed it on the gas ring. “Cuppa?”

            Blackie Smith seemed to live in the club. Maybe he did, he was always here, day or night, as if he had nowhere better to be. And Bob Barclay, the owner, seemed to trust him.

            “No thanks. Were you around much last night?”

            “In and out,” Smith said cautiously. “Why?”

            “Do you remember me leaving?” It hadn’t been much of a session, no one catching fire, fronted by a tenor player no one knew who wanted to be Lester Young and feel far short.

            Smith shrugged. “Wasn’t paying attention. Why?”

            “I was coshed on my way back to the car.”

            The man’s eyes widened under his thick brows.

            “Coshed? Did they get anything?”

            “Didn’t even try,” Markham told him. “I was wondering if anyone left right after me.” It hadn’t been a large crowd, just ten or twelve. Other than a couple of faces he knew, he hadn’t paid the audience much mind.

            “Not that I remember,” Blackie said after some thought. “Sorry. Dan. You alright?”

            “Thick skull, that’s me.” It was what his mother always said when he banged his head. For a moment he could almost hear the tone of her voice. But she’d been dead for three years now, a tumour that ate away at her brain, leaving her family helpless. His father had gone six months later, his heart broken and no will to love. “Never mind, it was worth a try.”

            “You coming down later?”

            “Will there be anyone good?”

            “Probably just Bob and the lads. Tomorrow, now, that’s a different matter. Chris Barber’s in York. He might come over when the gig’s done.”

            He’d heard Barber. The style was too traditional for his taste. But somewhere freer he might be worth hearing.

            “We’ll see. Thanks, Blackie.”

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