The Hotel Lemon Squash Continental
This is the first chapter of my new novel, The Hotel Lemon Squash Continental (synopsis below). It’s the sequel to Glimpses, and continues the story of Guido Roberts, last seen involved in a murder attempt.
I’m writing it like a script in this first draft, because I like to sketch in the dialogue, and not spend time on anything else, particularly as I may discard the whole chapter later on—or even the book (?).
Guido Roberts: Soho face, dope dealer and flat racing enthusiast.
Bert Springer: turf accountant and assistant secretary of the Fulham Rotary Club.
Pam: Guido’s partner and worker in the sex industry.
The Major: Guido’s father and market stall dealer in antique prints.
Scene 1: A betting shop in Dean Street, Soho. DAY, 14.30
Guido Roberts scrunches up his betting slip, tosses it towards his cowboy boot, and executes a near-perfect drop kick into the wastepaper bin. He looks around for acclaim, but not one of the other punters has noticed.
Bert Springer: Lady Luck is not smiling on you, my old son.
We see through the open door along Dean Street. The late summer heat bounces off the pavements. A gust of hot air sends dust-devils scurrying across the soft tarmac. It hasn’t rained for weeks, and the grass in Soho Square is bleached white, like the African savannah.
Bert (CONT’D): In fact, Lady Luck has just kicked you in the bollocks. Kneed you in the family fucking jewels. Don’t forget, I’ll need you to settle up at the end of the week … (He sucks his teeth) Got your tin hat, Gweeda? Here comes your Pam. On the war path.
Guido Roberts: You’ll get your money, Bert. I always pay my debts.
Bert: Looks like she’s got her rolling pin, Gweeda. Wanna slip out the back door?
Bert steps back to allow Pam to enter. She towers above him: Pam is six foot tall and the bookie is short, barely five foot two, a rotund, bald-headed man. She pauses in the doorway to fasten a rubber band around her ponytail, and then addresses Guido.
Pam: You fucking prat! You daft bugger!
Bert: Bloody hell! Are you hen-pecked, Gweeda, or what?
Pam: You shut it, Bert, or I’ll be using more than a rolling pin on you.
Bert: I don’t think so, darling. I’ll give you more than a slap in return.
Pam grabs Guido by the upper arm, as though he was a naughty child.
Pam: Outside, you idiot!
Bert: (calls after them) By Saturday, Gweeda.
SCENE 2: Exterior, Dean Street. DAY, 14.35.
Guido is towed into the street and stands blinking in the strong light.
Pam: How much do you owe, now?
Guido: It was weird—a three horse accumulator. My horses won the first two races, at Kempton Park, at short odds. Final race at Doncaster, and I’m ahead until the last two furlongs. I’ve got 2,200 quid riding on Laughing Boy, and he’s the favourite, and Fancy Nancy comes up on the inside—
Pam: In other words, you lost the bloody lot.
Guido: Just the way it goes, sometimes. Laughing Boy should’ve won easy, but he didn’t like the going. Ground’s hard as iron.
Guido spits into the gutter in disgust. A large semi-circle of wet has spread across Guido’s shirt, just above his waistband, and both armpits are soaking.
Pam: Just look at you. What a two and eight! You’re like Trevor Howard in one of them jungle films, where he’s driven mad by the drums. (She mimics Trevor Howard.) Those damned drums!
Guido: I can’t help it. I sweat a lot in this weather.
Pam: How much do you owe Bert Springer? Altogether?
Guido: A monkey.
Pam: You bastard!
Without warning, Pam slaps him around the back of the head three times, and he throws his arms up to protect himself.
Pam (CONT’D): Where are you going to get that from?
Guido: I thought you could loan it me?
She moves to hit him again, but he steps out of range.
Pam: I can see your training’s got a long way to go. One thing’s for certain, you’re going to find that bread before the Old Bill catch up with you.
Guido stops walking and is sweating even more profusely. He mops his brow with a brown paisley handkerchief, the kind that was once used to disguise the habit of snuff taking.
Guido: It’s nothing to do with the law. It’s between me and Bert Springer.
Pam: I’m not talking about your flaming debts. Remember that Ronnie Fizz you tried to do away with? Well, someone’s just put a bullet through his skull.
Guido: Nothing to do with me. And I didn’t try nothing. I just happened to be in the motor.
Pam: Do you see any green in there?
(Pam pulls down the lower lash of her left eye for Guido’s inspection.)
Pam (CONT’D): Anyway, it turns out that Ronnie Fizz’s dad was a cop—
Guido: I knew he was a fucking grass—
Pam: See—you was in it up to your bloody neck!
Guido: No way. I was just there to ID him.
Pam: The Old Bill are going mental. They’re pulling everyone in. They know you was in that car when Tommy Bolt got killed. I heard from Miss Demeaner. She said you was working for the Maltese?
Guido: Course I wasn’t. She’s all mouth, that Demeaner.
Pam: They’ll be fitting you up if you stay round here. That new drug squad’s going on the rampage. The Rolling Stones have been busted for something silly, like a Mars Bar.
Guido: It was a roach. And some speed.
Pam: Why don’t you go down to Brighton for a while, till it all quietens down?
Guido: No, I’ll go over Notting Hill and see the Major.
Pam: For fuck’s sake! Why do you have to bring him into it? Stand on your own two feet. And why do you always call your Daddy by his sodding army title? The war’s been over twenty years.
Guido: He’s not a real major, it’s just a nickname. He used to be a bit of a con artist after the war, and he always wore an officer’s uniform.
Pam: So he’s always been bad news.
Guido: No, this is serious, Pam. Let me sort it. The Major will help me out. He’s always got his ear to the ground. Best connected man in West London, my father.
SCENE 3: PUBLIC HOUSE, PORTOBELLO ROAD. EVENING, 18.00.
A crowd is drinking on the pavement outside the pub. Guido has to push his way through, to get in the door. The Major spots Guido before his son reaches the saloon bar.
Major: (Announces, to no one in particular) The Prodigal Son!
Guido: What you having, Dad?
Major: Have you remembered your ruddy wallet? That must be a first.
Guido: Look, do you want a drink or not? I’m not going to twist your arm.
Major: (Backslang) Tenip Reeb! Touts: Guinness. With a Whisky chaser.
(Guido waits while the barmaid sculpts a shamrock motif into the head of each pint, before joining the old man at his corner table)
Major: (Speaking slowly, with authority and precision, as if addressing someone profoundly deaf) The beach at Anzio!
Guido: Do what?
Major: Fucking Anzio. The soft underbelly of Europe, Churchill called it. Sodding underbelly! We faced three Panzer divisions.
Guido: Dad, that was twenty bloody years ago. Time to forget it.
Major: Still, I met your mother, God rest her soul. Your mother was an Eyetie.
(Jumps to his feet. Shuffles around the table with arms akimbo. Sings:)
Hurry me home to Blighty,
Take me back to dear old Blighty …
Major(CONT’D): Come on! Sing-song! (He waves to the other drinkers to join him, but they avoid his gaze)
Guido: Dad, please. Sit down, there’s something I want to ask you.
Major: (Raises his pint glass to the young barmaid) All right Betty, my love?
Guido: You see, I’m in a spot of bother.
Major: One hundred Hail Marys. I converted to Catholic for your mother, but I never kept it up after she died. You was baptised, but I never had you confirmed.
(Drains his glass, sucks his white moustache clean)
Guido: Would you like another, Dad? I need to talk.
Major: I don’t mind if I do! (Laughs) Colonel Chinstrap, Betty! I don’t mind if I do! Remember that one? The radio show?
Guido: (Waves to the barmaid for another two pints) Dad, I’m in a spot of bother.
Major: So you keep saying.
Guido: Pam reckons the Old Bill might fit me up, over this Ronnie Fizz business I told you about. They know I was in the motor. Apparently someone’s gone and done him in. The Old Bill are desperate for a result.
Major: I know, I’ve heard all about it. It’s that Commander Jarvis. He was the boy’s father. Used to be a DI in West End Central. Evil bastard. He was the one who nicked me for kiting cheques during the Festival of Britain. He was always ready to take a bung, but since this murder he’s gone like Billy sodding Graham. On a crusade to wipe out drug-taking and avenge his son’s death.
Guido: Look, I want to keep my head down for a while. Do you know anyone who might have a gaff round here? Somewhere me and Pam could kip for a couple of months?
Major: You’re in luck. (Produces a key ring with a flourish and selects one key) There’s a room in my house. Chepstow Villas. I’m the landlord’s agent, so I can put it your way. Fiver a week.
Guido: (Reaches for key) Fantastic! I can let you have the cash next week.
Major: You must think I’m barmy. It’ll go on a nag. Rent is two weeks in advance. Put a tenner on the table and you can move in tonight. Otherwise, you can fuck off.
Guido: Jesus wept. And they say blood’s thicker than water? I don’t know what you’ve got running in your bloody veins. (Opens wallet and slowly counts out ten one-pound notes)
Synopsis: Harassed by bookies over gambling debts, and by police investigating the murder of Ronnie Fizz, Guido Roberts seeks the help of his father, a petty criminal known as the Major. The Major, who has an antique print stall on Portobello Road, finds Guido and Pam a bed-sitter in a Notting Hill house, where most of the other tenants are members of the local witches’ coven. Pam becomes fascinated by witchcraft, but Guido remains to be convinced, and their relationship comes under increasing strain when he refuses to remove his underpants at a public celebration of Samhain.
Guido is tracked down by both the Soho bookies and the killer of Ronnie Fizz, who needs Guido’s help with a cover-up. He decides to do a runner. He joins an ex-British Museum security guard, Kamal Pasha, known as the “Afghan Hound”, on a trip to Kabul, aimed at importing sheepskin coats and hashish. En route, in the holy city of Meshad, Guido discovers that the Hound has double-crossed him. Kamal has hidden priceless Afghan miniatures, stolen from the British Museum, in Guido’s luggage, and, when the Iranian police bust Guido for smoking dope in front of the shrine of Imam Reza, he avoids arrest by giving them one of the miniatures as baksheesh. His deportation to Afghanistan leads to the Hound pursuing him across the subcontinent, a deadly chase which only one of the two adventurers will survive.
(The Hotel Lemon Squash Continental is the name of a hostelry near the bus station in Herat, which features in the story.)