Bums is the fourth novel from Welsh writer Derec Jones, and the first to feature Detective Inspector Frank Lee.
During his investigation into the killing of the headmaster of the biggest school in the county, the DI comes across the motley collection of ‘Bums’ that inhabit the nether lands on the edges of society.
After a traumatic life as a Traveller who often came to blows with the authorities, Frank is now operating within the ‘system’. Despite all the pressures to conform and obey without question, he insists on doing things his way – laid back and Zen.
Look out for the next two books in this trilogy of stories featuring the unlikely policeman: Beats and Bones – coming soon!
BUMS is now available as a special hard-cover edition, limited to a maximum of 200 signed copies at £20 each plus delivery.
Scroll down to read the first chapter.
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BUMS – First Chapter
A naked body, wrapped loosely in plastic bin liners, is dragged along a dark back lane. A man’s arm, bare, apart from an expensive gold wristwatch, flops out. A gloved hand snatches the watch from the wrist and lets the arm fall. The body is dumped on a pile of black bags already bursting with rotting rubbish.
Footsteps fade into the distance.
Thursday 12 noon
“The body in the lane”
Detective Inspector Frank Lee was unsettled. It was not a state of mind he was used to, since long before he’d found a sweet still spot in his head that let him deal with the quantum chaos of life with an even, meditative outlook.
Although Frank worked as a police officer in post-industrial South Wales, his self-image was more that of a sadhu, a wandering ascetic, seeking enlightenment in a dark landscape on the edges of a society that valued material gain more highly than care and compassion.
His spiritual education had been a long journey of self-discovery, from the wide-eyed wonder of his childhood, through the maelstrom of crazy adolescence and the utter misery of early adult life, to the plateau of quiet control he’d arrived at in his late thirties and inhabited happily in the decade since. But something was nagging at him. It was an almost inaudible voice with less volume than a whisper, but it was irritating and persistent. Maybe he’d become becalmed, bobbing without purpose on a blank sea of day to day complacency.
Perhaps it was a simple case of being different; he was not like most police officers and was self-aware enough to know that some of his colleagues despised him for what they wrongly interpreted as his aloof smugness.
Jennie was not a member of that club. She gave him that wistful look. It unnerved him a little, but he enjoyed it, as usual. Jennie was sexy – and single, as far as he knew, and it had been long enough since his last relationship, but he wasn’t ready for another. Besides, she was too straight, too normal – if there was such a thing. He smiled at her.
“She’s a bit stressed today,” Jennie said, sighing and looking back at her computer screen.
Frank hovered outside the glass-panelled door, a thin manila folder hanging loosely in his hand. Inside, Superintendent Samantha J Taylor was on the phone, her body squirming with the pressures of the job. The Superintendent, like most senior officers, was drowning in politics, and totally ineffective as a cop.
Frank relaxed, grateful he would never step up another rung on that ladder of corporate hell. He stood still and waited. It was almost full moon, and a blue supermoon at that, a reminder that his existence was nothing more than a temporary arrangement of energies, a realisation that everything waxes and wanes – yin and yang, in and out like the tide, like the breath that gave him his consciousness.
The Superintendent put the phone down. Her head fell into her hands. Frank pushed the door open and walked in. Despite the politics, he was fond of the senior officer.
“All right Sam?”
Taylor shook her head. “Not really,” she sighed. “You?”
Frank raised his eyebrows and dropped the folder on the desk. “That’s the Meadow Road murder file sorted out,” he said.
“Yes, an interesting one that – in the end. Jimmy Conway did well there.”
“How’s the Whetter case going? Do they need any help?” Frank asked, already knowing there was little hope of being given anything substantial to work on. Politics again.
“No Frank, that’s just about sorted, sorry.”
“Never mind, you’ve got the afternoon off, haven’t you. Got anything planned?”
“The usual,” Frank said.
“You’d better get off then. Do something relaxing. Put your feet up.”
Frank yawned. “I couldn’t get any more relaxed than I am already. Are you sure nothing’s come in?”
“A cold case then, there must be something?”
“Sorry, I can’t help it if peace has descended on the land. On the other hand, that’s good policing that is, prevention is better, they say.”
“All right, see you tomorrow, I suppose.”
“You don’t have to come into the office every day, you know that.”
Frank walked slowly to the car park, thinking about his lot. He’d joined the Force to catch the bad guys, not to bugger about with filing cabinets. Maybe he’d go private, find his own cases, at least then he could chase after the right kind of villains.
He sat in his van and patted the dashboard affectionately. He was home. He dialled a number, putting the phone to his ear as he pulled on his seatbelt.
“Hi. On my way. I should be there by one.”
He drove the van out of HQ towards the valleys. The clutch needed seeing to but he’d driven it in a far worse condition, so it could wait.
He was starting to feel adrift again, work wasn’t doing it for him anymore. When he’d first become DI it was a liberation, those years of training and slogging had paid off, and though he was not left unscarred, he believed he’d kept most of his integrity.
He was a good detective, so good that he’d become more or less autonomous. Some didn’t like that, and didn’t like him either; his anarchic ways threatened them. Perhaps it was time to get out? He couldn’t do much if he was being blocked, and he didn’t want to waste his energy on political scrapping. Maybe he’d go travelling again? All he had to do was keep driving.
One day maybe, but for now, Beth needed him, and Anwen. He’d just have to stick it out.
* * *
In Elchurch town centre Jeff was sitting next to Arthur on a bench overlooking the civic flowerbeds. He was draining the last dregs from a can of cheap cider and wondering whether he’d find enough of the necessaries to fund more booze and get a comfortable night’s sleep later. It was a challenge he faced every day and he was proud that he managed to overcome it nine times out of ten. The challenge of hanging out with Arthur was another matter, and usually involved more compromises than he was comfortable with, but that kind of comfort was harder to achieve, so compromise and discomfort it had to be.
“Your dick has shrunk so much, it’s almost non-existent,” Arthur said.
Jeff knew his friend liked winding people up, especially the people he was closest to, but Jeff also knew how to hold his own. “Turd,” he belched, tossing the empty cider can into the shrubbery. “Fat bastard.”
A pretty female office worker drew a wide arc around their bench and settled for a share of the low stone wall that encircled the foam-filled fountain. She glanced in the direction of the men as her polished white teeth devastated a prawn cocktail sandwich. “Bums,” she mumbled in disgust, through a pert lipstick-stained mouth crammed with brown bread, pink mayonnaise and dead shellfish.
Jeff settled back against the cold metal of the bench and patted his bulging stomach. Arthur’s agitated eyes followed the girl’s bare bronzed legs as they emerged from the dainty open-backed sandals and travelled over the bends of her knees, until they disappeared under her small thin skirt at just below crotch level.
“The sun brings them out,” he said with a sigh. “It’s a fucking crime – ought to be banned.”
“What the fuck are you on about, you couldn’t get it up if she begged you. Your shagging days are long gone.”
“You know fuck all,” spat Arthur. “I’m off. See you round.”
* * *
On the southern side of Elchurch town centre, in a grimy café, in a street that while not quite run-down, was decelerating rapidly, Smelly Shelley pissed herself – again.
“Fuck!” she exclaimed.
Leo, the café owner, a third generation descendant of Italian immigrants, who had a propensity towards attractive young women, narrowed his eyes. How he wished he could get rid of these bums from the café for good. He didn’t like the way they looked, he didn’t like the way they smelled, and he didn’t like the small amount of money they spent. But what could he do? He’d sat down one day after closing time with a calculator, a pen, and the back of an unopened, overdue electricity bill, and worked out how much they contributed to his turnover. It wasn’t much, but it still amounted to nearly a third. How could he afford to lose more customers without going completely out of business?
Smelly Shelley was another matter. She had to go. Even the other bums complained about her belching and the way she couldn’t control her bladder. Leo saw the piss dripping underneath the seat she was occupying and screwed his face up in an involuntary gesture of loathing. He sighed, dropped the dishcloth onto the stainless steel counter under the espresso machine, wiped his hands in his apron, took a deep breath and marched over to her.
“Out!” he bellowed.
“But my coffee,” she complained. “I haven’t finished.”
Leo exhumed a two pound coin from the depths of his trouser pocket and threw it at her as she fussed with her dirty baggy coat.
“Fuck off, and I never want you in my café again. Never. Again.”
Luckily she was too shocked to fight back and he pushed her out of the door by the sheer force of his anger and the rage pulsating from his eyes.
He slammed the door in her blubbery face and leant against it so she couldn’t force her way back in. Shelley gave up after a few seconds and smiled to herself. Fucker, she thought. Stupid fucker. The coffee only cost one pound forty and she’d drunk half of it anyway.
* * *
To the north of the town centre, Bernard was negotiating the lower end of Albert Road, named after his great-grandfather, as his dear departed mother used to delight in telling him when he was a boy. Albert the Great she called him, the great citizen of Elchurch, Albert the businessman, Albert the industrialist, Albert the philanthropist.
Bernard lived in a small, dilapidated, terraced house in the middle of Smallhill Road. A house donated by the same Albert to his mother’s mother on the occasion of her marriage to a young clerk from the Tin Works destined to die in the trenches of the First World War, leaving his young wife pregnant, and dependent on the benevolence of her celebrated father.
Bernard’s mother was born in 105 Smallhill Road during the last months of the Great War and married late, to a round postman, after the death of her own mother in 1959. A year later Bernard entered the world, into what was, at first, a complete loving family. His father died in 1965, leaving Bernard and his mother alone for the next thirty-seven years, before she sunk into a terminal decline after a stroke. Now, over a decade later, Bernard was truly alone, his only family stacked up behind him, already little more than scratches on gravestones.
Bernard hadn’t participated much in school, tolerating the long days and insensitive children only so that he could return home to the warmth and love of his mother. He’d acquired the nickname Bum because of the initials of his full name – Bernard Uriel Morgan. He left school at sixteen with just enough qualifications to gain him a place as a trainee stores assistant at an electrical wholesaler half a mile from his home in Smallhill Road.
He’d stayed at the wholesaler’s for ten years and never progressed further, finally becoming unemployed in 1987 after the merger of his firm with another caused the closure of the local branch. He hadn’t worked since, living first on unemployment benefits and later, on sick pay because of his learning disabilities, chronic depression, and his doctor’s eagerness to get him out of the surgery.
Even the unemployed and unemployable have to deal with the stresses of modern life, and Bernard, after decades of battling the devils that lived inside his head, had found his own special methods of coping. Now and again however, new and unexpected obstacles challenged the hard-won stability he’d achieved.
The anger and frustration started in his abdomen and exploded like a Roman candle through every nerve of his large chubby body. The pavement ahead of him was blocked with a small mountain of sand, the depositors of the sand were sitting in a white builder’s pick-up, parked right up against the mound, eating sandwiches and drinking from vacuum flasks. This meant he’d have to cross the road to avoid the obstruction, thereby deviating from his path, the path he followed every single time he returned from the trip he took to the shops every day before lunch.
Bernard stopped and rocked on his feet, staring at the immense barrier, unable to move on, unable to go back. As he rocked he went into a trance, a numb, blank state in which the rhythm of the rocking gave him the order and predictability he craved. His breath gradually caught the rhythm, five rocks to each breath in, and five rocks to each breath out.
Gradually the rocking slowed to match the breaths until they became synchronised, one long slow breath in to each backward movement of the rocking action and one slow breath out to each forward movement. Finally, as the meditation took effect and the rage subsided he strode purposefully across the street and around the workers, cutting back to the correct side before the crucial right-turn into Smallhill Road.
* * *
Frank drove the van off the main road and along the rough track before easing it between the overgrown hedges and parking it in its usual space on the bare slab of his new workshop. He’d laid the concrete for that three years earlier, two years after the foundations for the main house had gone down. He was in no rush.
He stretched his legs, yawned, and emptied his bladder into the bowl of the portable toilet. He retrieved a bag of tools from the back of the van, slung it across his shoulder, and walked back through the hedge, across the road, and in through the gate of a small, ivy-covered cottage.
The front door was open. Beth was in the kitchen at the back of the house, rinsing a colander of gooseberries in the reclaimed butler sink.
“Hi Dad,” Beth said, kissing him on the cheek, her fingers submerged in the plump green fruit.
“Where’s the damage?” Frank asked.
“Hang on,” Beth said, wiping her hands on an unbleached linen tea-towel. “I’ll show you.”
* * *
Jeff found Arthur outside the jobcentre.
“No fucking chance. Ha!”
“What the fuck are you on about?” Arthur asked.
“You and jobs, that’s like me and fucking ballet or something.”
“You better keep some of your sick money; it’s my birthday next week.”
“Not as old as you, you prick.”
“Your brain is shrinking, as well as your knob, you’ve gone senile already,” Arthur said.
“What are you doing here?”
“Waiting for you.”
“I’ll see you down in Leo’s caff.”
“Not if I see you first.”
Arthur went off in a huff. Jeff signed on, had a lecture about using the government’s job website and then ambled through the busy town centre towards Leo’s. What a load of arseholes, he thought, all these dumb people rushing about as if their lives were important. He smiled smugly to himself. At least he’d got out of the fucking rat race. He didn’t have to worry about getting places. They’d given up trying to make him find work; he’d made sure of that. Just once every two weeks he visited the dole office and afterwards he popped into the library. If he was lucky, he got the blonde librarian to help him with the computer so he could pretend to look for jobs. He’d never work again; he knew that. Even if he wanted to work, no one was going to take on a bum in his mid-fifties, and that’s the way he liked it. He had the power; he controlled his own life.
As Jeff strolled majestically past the pubs and the hairdressers’ salons towards Leo’s, he noticed Smelly Shelley coming towards him about a hundred yards away. She didn’t look up but was focusing on her feet; and she was clutching a white plastic carrier bag in her grubby hands. She’s got some booze, he thought, silly old cow, she’ll never learn, you’ve got to keep your wits about you in this world. As they drew closer Shelley turned sharply to her left and disappeared into a back lane.
Jeff smirked and chuckled. I’ll fucking show her, he thought. He slowed down as he approached the entrance to the lane and peered around the corner. There was no sign of her. He turned into the lane and walked more briskly. Another lane joined the first at right angles to his left and Jeff peered down again. Sure enough, he saw Shelley, leaning over a mound of rubbish, black bags and bins overflowing with the shit that came out of the arse end of the shops and pubs on Park Road.
Jeff crept up behind the decrepit specimen of a woman, intending to scare her. Shelley didn’t move, but stood as if her feet were nailed to the ground.
“Aargh!” he shouted.
Shelley jerked and turned around, her eyes hopping wildly in their sockets the fear in them much more intense than he’d expected. Then she turned back to the pile of rubbish she’d been regarding so intently. Jeff took a step forward, and curious to see what was so fascinating, craned his neck around her dishevelled frame.
What he saw shocked him as well. At first it was difficult for him to make sense of the heap of death, then, as it came into focus, he saw that there amongst the black bags and soggy cardboard was a dead body. He stepped forward again to get a closer look and after absorbing the image completely, he turned towards Smelly Shelley. Their eyes met.
“Fuck me!” he said.
Shelley’s shocked silence ended: “It wasn’t me, I didn’t do nothing.”
She moved backwards, slowly at first, then turned and scuttled away in the direction they’d come from.
Jeff ran after her: “Hang on, you stupid old tart.”
He chased her as fast as he could, bearing in mind his completely unconditioned physique, but she was too fast. By the time he reached the exit to Park Road, gasping for breath, she was already fifty yards further down the road in the direction of Leo’s café.
Jeff leant one arm against the wall of the newsagent’s shop, and waited until his energy was restored from the deepest reserves of his being. Fuck, perhaps he would have to do something about his health, but for now all he needed was a drink, even a cup of tea would do, with at least three sugars.
* * *
“It’s nothing,” Frank said. “Looks like a tile has shifted, some overgrown ivy, it won’t take long.”
“Great, I’ll put the kettle on, or I’ve got some of that rhubarb wine if you fancy it.”
“No thanks,” Frank shook his head. “But a brew of angelica would be nice, seeing as it’s a full moon tomorrow.”
Beth went back to the kitchen. Frank climbed up the ladder carrying his tool bag. He trimmed the ivy and locked the tile back into place.
Frank breathed deeply and walked confidently up the roof to its apex. He leant against the chimney and looked over the blackthorn hedges, out across the valley and up towards the hills with their swathes of greens and purples, infested with dots of munching white sheep. He wondered what those hills had looked like in ancient times, what sort of flora and fauna had been lost to the blight introduced by humankind’s greed and ignorance. Sheep were, like all creatures, wonderful in their own way, but there were too many of them, and they lived short miserable lives anyway.
He sighed, it was no good thinking like that, he was not responsible for the way the world was; he, like everyone else was born into the continuum of human existence, he, like those sheep, was an unnatural blight on the beautiful planet, there were too many like him too. He let the thoughts settle and as usual balance was restored, he was neither good nor evil, he just was. It was no use trying to find meaning in such material manifestations; all there was, was life, awareness – the breath that went in and out of his body and fuelled his consciousness. It was all good.
* * *
Despite the gruesome images still vivid in her mind, Shelley found enough composure to cob a large glob of gelatinous phlegm at the etched glass of Leo’s café’s window as she rushed past on her wobbly legs. The glob held itself together as it oozed down the glass, leaving a sticky trail like a dying slug.
Leo popped out of the door and watched Shelley’s backside moving away from him with regret. How he wished he could plant his size ten in the centre of that blubber and send the old cow flying over the roofs of Park Road. She’d land in a bloody mess half a mile away, impaled on the spikes of the park’s railings; then she’d be consumed by street dogs and big black rats.
He spat with disgust at Shelley’s slug-like message and his espresso stained spittle mingled with her vile phlegm to increase its pace down his window. Fuck it, he thought. Everything’s gone fucking wrong today, it’s all fucked up. That fat bitch just about defined his life now, what was the fucking point?
Leo locked himself inside the empty café, flipped the closed sign over and shut the blinds. Where was Llinos when he needed her? Why had she left him like this? Didn’t she realise that he was so close, so close that he could feel death’s cold putrid breath under his nose? Bloody women, in the end they were all about as worthwhile as the piss-ridden bums who defiled his town – leaving their filthy spoor in his consciousness like dog shit on the pavement.
What time was it? Ah, just after one o’clock – good. He’d show them, when they turned up to spend their measly pennies on his coffee and doughnuts. They didn’t deserve it anyway, no one in this hellhole of a town appreciated his coffee. Let them drink urine in the fucking toilets that pretended to be cafés in the town centre. The whole fucking world had gone fucking mad anyway, there was nothing left for him in it. Let the big chains, with their same neat sterility have it, the people deserved nothing better. It would show her as well, that woman who had been his wife, after her betrayal, when she took her apron off for the last time and spat the words at him with the same hatred he’d seen in Smelly Shelley’s eyes. Fuck the café, fuck the town, fuck that Jezebel, and fuck them all.
Leo emptied the contents of the till into his pocket, a little over thirty pounds, his twenty-five pound float and the takings of the day, grabbed a half-empty bottle of scotch from his place under the counter, and took a long swig. On the way to the back door he put on a large black overcoat, a coat that his grandfather had worn when he arrived from Italy before the war, as warm and comforting still as it was then.
He had nothing left, nothing of any value. Llinos had taken the last of his self-respect when she’d disgorged the decomposed vitriol of nearly thirty years of marriage into the lap of his naivety as she poured her last cup of cappuccino – all over him and in front of the last two of his regular respectable customers. The twenty-four months he’d lived through since were the worst of his life, serving only to hammer him deeper and deeper into a swamp of increasingly filthy bitterness. At last he’d made the decision, he would change things himself, by using violent force if necessary. He’d show them he wasn’t going to be fucked around with any longer. He’d show them.
Leo turned at the back door and went back into the café. He’d heard someone knocking the front window, and voices, concerned, inquisitive voices. For a moment he wavered – perhaps he could pull the business around; perhaps he could re-summon the energy he had when he first took over the business after his father’s early death.
He moved towards the window and tried to make out who it was outside. He peeped through the gilded lettering, through the apostrophe of the one word, Leo’s. That had cost a lot, a fortnight’s takings – the mark he’d made on the café to tell the world, or at least the people of Elchurch, that he’d arrived, a quarter of a century earlier.
Outside, Jeff was still breathing heavily. Arthur, shocked to see his friend in such a distressed state at the entrance to the lane, had supported him without comment to Leo’s.
“What the fuck’s going on?” Jeff gasped.
“Fuck knows, perhaps the bastard’s gone for a piss or something.” Arthur knocked hard on the glass. “Come on, open up, fucking Eyetie, we don’t have fucking siestas in this country.”
Inside, Leo’s misery metamorphosed into madness. He yanked the front door open and burst outside holding the whisky bottle aloft like a cudgel.
“Bums, fucking low-life, scumshitting bums . . .”
“Fuck me!” Arthur recoiled.
Jeff put his arms up to cover his head.
Leo was trembling with rage and fear but a lifetime of conditioning stopped him from smashing the bottle on Jeff’s skull, and when he saw the terror that had turned the bum’s features into a grotesque frozen mask, he lowered the whisky and tucked it into the large pocket of the big black coat.
“Leave me alone,” he pleaded. “Go away.”
Jeff and Arthur shuffled backwards for a few paces and then turned and hurried away without a word.
Leo went back into the café and locked and bolted the door. He slumped into a chair at one of the tables and started to cry. He took another long swig of the scotch, returned it to his pocket and stood up slowly.
There was no going back now; he had to end this before he went completely mad. He had failed, after a lifetime of serving the great public of Elchurch, he had failed. It wasn’t his fault – the last few years of decay in that part of the town had finally caught up with him. He couldn’t have done anything to stop it. Perhaps Llinos was right to get out when she did? He should have got out then as well, while he still had some self-respect left. But he’d do it now, he couldn’t make another cup of coffee, it was over.
Coffee, fucking coffee, the best fucking coffee in town, real coffee, how many tonnes of raw green coffee beans had been transformed in his hands into the best fucking coffee in the whole fucking god-forsaken country? Is that what they would put on his headstone? – ‘he made good fucking coffee’.
Leo lashed his foot out at a chair. It went tumbling across the room until it smashed against the counter, dislodging a tray of freshly washed cups and saucers. They fell to the hard tiled floor and shattered into a hundred pieces. Leo laughed hysterically. He kicked another chair, and another, and then overturned a table. He continued in a spree of destructive energy until the whole place was a heap of mangled broken wreckage. Still laughing he went out through the back door and into the lane.
Leo paused to take another swig of the whisky and then with a surge of anger flung the almost-empty bottle away from him. The bottle smashed against a wall, and its fragments drizzled onto the unseen heap of rotten death amongst the bins and rubbish. He staggered on.