Exclusive extended extract from Rope & Canvas

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Rope & Canvas by DDC Morgan


When the drunk took liberties with the barmaid, Calloway broke his nose.

He should have lost his job. But the barmaid was a friend of Trudi Trauber and Trudi had a lot of influence at the arena. The drunk was lucky. If Trudi had got to him first, a broken nose would have been the least of his worries.

Calloway tossed the drunk a beer towel to wipe the blood from his face. Then he yanked him by the collar of his threadbare jacket and dragged him down to the foyer and out through the big double doors. The drunk stumbled down the steps cursing, the blood-soaked towel muffling his empty threats. As Calloway turned to re-enter the building, he heard a familiar voice.

‘I expect he deserved it.’

‘They generally do,’ Calloway replied.

A small, bow-legged man stood in the light of the red neon sign in a well-cut suit that clung to his wiry frame like it was nailed to him. He had the dry parchment skin of the lifelong chain smoker which aged him beyond his forty-odd years. He looked like a jockey with cash in his pocket, which wasn’t a million miles from the truth. He grinned at Calloway through his crooked yellow teeth.

‘So you’re in the wrestling game now?’ the small man said.

‘I’m in the nose-breaking game, Bert.’

‘You should be in the ring.’

‘It’s lady wrestling.’

The small man chuckled. ‘Might be a laugh.’

Bert Webber nodded towards the poster in the glass display case beside the main doors. Fierce painted faces glared back, their muscled bodies squeezed into swimsuits above tightly-laced wresting boots. Trudi Trauber was top of the bill.

‘They’re a rum lookin’ bunch, mind you,’ said Webber.

‘They’d chew you up and spit you out, Bert.’

Webber pondered this. ‘I don’t think my Elsie would approve.’

Calloway pulled a Navy Cut from a battered gun-metal case and offered one to Webber.

‘It’s been a while, Bert.’

‘Over a year, I reckon.’

‘You don’t strike me as the lady wrestling type, so I assume this isn’t a chance encounter. How did you find me?’

‘Called round your old gaff. There’s Irish living there now. They had a forwarding address. So I called there and they told me you was working here.’

‘You’ve clearly been to a lot of trouble.’

This made Calloway uneasy. Webber was part of a life he’d done his best to leave behind.

‘Yeah, I had to go round the houses. Didn’t think it was a good idea to ask Pat.’

Patricia Moxon. Speedway promoter. Former boss, former lover and the cause of a whole lot of trouble for Calloway. Bert was one of her riders. Calloway had been her head of security.

‘Does she know I’m here?’ said Calloway.

Webber dragged on the cigarette. He shook his head. ‘Look, can we go inside?’ he said. ‘I don’t really want to be seen outside this place. If the Sunday Pictorial caught me on me tod hanging around lady wrestlers, Pattie would do her nut.’

Webber was a proper star now. Pulling in six thousand a year, Calloway had read.

He nodded and looked at his watch. ‘My shift finishes in twenty minutes. Wait for me in the bar. Tell the barmaid you’re a friend of mine. She’ll serve you after hours.’ Calloway noticed blood spots on his cuff. ‘She owes me a favour,’ he said and returned to the arena.

The last bout had finished and the punters were leaving. Calloway was there to ensure an orderly exit. They were an odd bunch. Old biddies with a blood lust, couples on a night out, single men of certain tastes. Those were the ones you had to watch. The ones with their hands in their pockets all night and shameful looks on their faces when you caught their eye. There was the odd drunk, like you get anywhere hard-working folk gather to let off steam. If they got punchy, Calloway would turn up with an arm lock or a sly jab to the guts.

He met Bert in the bar. It was closed now and Trudi’s friend was clearing the tables and emptying the ashtrays. A fug of bitter beer, body odour and cigarette smoke hung in the air. Bert sat at a table in the far corner smoking a cigar. In his well-cut suit and handmade shoes he looked like a mobster from an American B movie. That’s what happens when the boy from Bermondsey gets six grand a year, thought Calloway. He was pleased for Webber. He was one of the good ones. A fearless little rider and everybody’s friend. He also knew everyone’s business, which had been an asset to Calloway in his former job.

‘You’re looking well, Bert.’

Webber swilled what looked like scotch around in his glass and took a sip. ‘Can’t complain. I’ve had a couple of good seasons.’

‘Still in the prefab?’

Webber rolled his eyes. ‘Elsie won’t leave it. She hated it when the corporation first moved us in. Now she says it’s home. I keep telling her, we can live anywhere now. Bromley, Beckenham, somewhere decent. She won’t have it.’

A cleaner was clanking around the floor with a can of bleach and a bucket, smearing the dirt around with his sodden mop. A roll-up fag dangled from his lower lip. The smoke from the fag aggravated the tick in his eye.

‘Lift yer feet,’ he grunted in Webber’s direction. The small man took one look at the grey swill heading in the direction of his handmade shoes and put his feet up on the chair opposite him. When the clang of the bucket had died down, Calloway cut to the chase.

‘This isn’t a social call, is it Bert?’

Webber looked sheepish and shook his head. ‘I came to ask a favour.’

Calloway was done doing favours. They’d never done him much good. He nodded towards the arena. ‘Need a few wrestling tips? I reckon I can get you those.’

Webber glanced back at the posters pinned to the varnished wood panelling behind them and winced.

‘I’ll pass, if you don’t mind.’

He drained the whisky glass and lit another cigar, puffing at it instead of getting to the point. It irritated Calloway.

‘Say your piece, Bert. We’ve both got homes to go to.’

‘Yeah, I’ve seen yours. Not much of a place, is it, if you don’t mind me saying.’

‘I do mind,’ said Calloway.

Webber realised he’d crossed a line, but he was right. Calloway was all but on his uppers. The big man lived in a single room in a rat-infested building that should have been condemned. When he’d taken the job at the arena two years ago, he’d argued for the title head of security. In reality he was a bouncer and a cheap one at that. His shoes were down at heel and his dinner suit smelled of damp. The once proud military man had lost much of the fastidiousness that had been second nature. What spare cash he had, he gave to Doreen. Her need was greater.

‘It’s me brother-in-law, Stan,’ said Webber.

Calloway had a vague recollection of the man. He’d eaten with Webber at the cafe where Stan’s wife Vera worked. Vera was a blowsy brunette with big curves and a dirty laugh. The stuff of shameful thoughts.

‘What about him?’

Webber spat out a shard of tobacco and stubbed out the cigar out like it suddenly tasted bad. ‘He’s dead.’

Calloway’s meter flickered red. He tried not to let it show. ‘Sorry to hear that, Bert.’

Webber drained the last of the whisky and looked like he needed another. The bar was empty and Trudi’s barmaid friend had clocked off for the night. Calloway crossed the room and helped himself to two doubles from the optics. When he returned, Webber took a large slug before continuing.

‘Stan’s a short-haul lorry driver. Well, he was. He was working away from home. Running ballast from the quarries to the building sites at that new town they’re building up at Stratton-Fenwick.’

Calloway had read about the new towns. They were building them around the country to relocate families bombed out of their homes during the war. Entire towns built from scratch. All modern and orderly. Homes with indoor bathrooms, heating and hot water. A far cry from the close-knit, oppressive pit villages of his own upbringing.

‘He told Vera he’d be away for a few months. He’d never been away that long before, apart from the war. Vera didn’t like it, of course. Kept on at him to come home weekends. Stan told her the fares home would cost too much. And he said he needed the overtime. He was saving to buy her a television. Vera’s been on at him for ages to buy one, even more so when she heard I’d bought one for Else.’

The little man looked sheepish, as if owning a television made him a traitor to his class. ‘Anyway, after a couple of months this bloke turns up at her door. Stan’s boss, he said he was, although Vera says Stan had never mentioned him. He had a copper with him. They sat her down and told her they had some bad news. Stan had been killed in an accident.’

‘What kind of accident?’

‘Crashed his lorry, they said, on the fourteenth of last month.’

Calloway shrugged. ‘These things happen, Bert.’

Webber shook his head like his big friend was missing the point. ‘They sent his things back to her, his wedding ring, his watch, his clothes. All wrapped up in a brown paper parcel. She went through everything, wanted it clean, wanted him to look his best when they laid him out. I told her, don’t bury him in his wedding ring. I know them undertakers. They’ll have that down the pawn shop before he’s gone cold and have pissed the proceeds up the wall by the time they put him in the ground. She wouldn’t have it. “He’s keeping it on,” she said. “Wherever he’s going next I want them to know he’s married.” Never really trusted him, see. Not since the war. Old Stan had a good war, if you know what I mean. Vera knew it. She knew he’d been putting it about in Egypt for starters. He was stationed in Alexandria. Got a liking for the local bints. His love letters home were all sweetness and light, but she knew. Knew him of old. After he was demobbed she kept him on a short leash.’

Calloway glanced at his watch. He should have been clearing the place and locking the gates by now. The punters had all left but through the open doors of the bar he could see lights on in the wrestlers’ dressing room at the end of the corridor.

Webber noticed him looking and gave him a nudge. ‘She found this in the lining of his best suit. It had slipped through a hole in the pocket.’

Webber passed a printed card to Calloway. It was crumpled and garishly coloured. It said Club Continentale in lettering cheap establishments think looks sophisticated. Below it were cheesecake images of pinup girls dancing with feathers.

‘So Stan found a clip joint on his night off. Hardly surprising, given his past form.’

Webber shook his head. He looked around him to see who might be listening, even though the bar was empty. He behaved as if he and Calloway were conspirators. He nodded at the card, like he was saving the best for last.

‘Turn it over.’

There was an address on the other side, on Potsdamer Strasse, Berlin.

‘That ain’t no new town, Mr Calloway.’

Calloway passed the card back. He wanted rid of it.

‘So?’ he said.

‘Why would he have that in his pocket?’

‘Could be any number of reasons. Could have been there for ages. Had he ever been to Berlin? Was he ever stationed there?’

Webber shook his head. ‘Just North Africa. Before that, Blandford Camp. He was Royal Signals. He was demobbed by forty-six. He was never posted to Germany.’

‘So maybe a pal passed him the card. Recommended the Club Continentale. Maybe he was planning a holiday by himself. Slip the leash for a bit.’

Calloway knew this was unlikely.

Webber scoffed. ‘Do you think our Vera would have let him go to Berlin? On holiday by himself? She did all she could to stop him going to Brighton for the races on bank holidays. It was only ’cause it was his job that she let him go. It was good money and she knew it.’

Calloway drained the last of the scotch. It still had the previous customer’s lipstick on the rim of the glass. The arena was that kind of establishment.

‘There’s any number of ways that card could have ended up in Stan’s suit. The man’s dead, Bert. What does it matter? Can’t you leave Vera to mourn him in her own way, suspicions and all?’

Webber sulked like a child that thinks it’s been chastised unfairly. ‘Vera’s not having it.’

The small rider dug into his pocket again. He pulled out half-a-dozen postcards and pushed them across the table. ‘He sent her these.’

Calloway leafed through them. They were picture postcards of the sights of Stratton-Fenwick. There weren’t many sights yet, clearly. Three of the six postcards were the same: a collection of boxy, flat-fronted buildings and a couple of rows of saplings which they called the town square. The rest showed the town sign next to some kind of sculpture Calloway couldn’t make out. The messages from Stan were bland. ‘I’m alright’, ‘how are you?’, ‘how’s the weather?’, ‘missing you’. They were written by someone who felt obliged to write but had nothing to say.

Calloway’s irritation showed. ‘What’s your point, Bert?’

‘Six postcards in the six weeks before his accident.’

Calloway shrugged.

Webber rolled his eyes in frustration. ‘Stan wouldn’t write that often. He’s not like that. He wasn’t the romantic type, not in that way. He’d have been happy to be away, not missing her enough to write to her once a week.’

‘You know what they say about absence, Bert.’

‘Yeah but in Stan’s case it usually meant a fondness for playing away.’

They both looked through the bar windows towards the arena as the lights went off one by one. Calloway looked at his watch again. He was tired and his knuckles hurt from the punch he’d given the drunk.

‘Go home, Bert,’ he said, as kindly as he could muster. ‘It’s late and you’re a good hour from your place. Give your sister-in-law time to grieve. There could be any number of reasons Stan had that nightclub leaflet. It doesn’t mean anything.’

Webber wasn’t having it. He reached into his pocket and pulled out a small slip of printed paper and slid it across the table.

‘Then what’s this about?’

It was a ticket for the Berlin U-Bahn.

‘Why did Stan have a Berlin underground ticket in his pocket, dated when he was supposed to be in Stratton bleedin’ Fenwick?’

Calloway picked up the ticket and turned it over in his big hands. Webber sat back in his seat and shook his head repeatedly.

‘Vera’s beside herself and I don’t blame her. All she’s had from Stan’s boss is flannel. They seem to think that because she’ll get a pension now, she don’t have to worry.’

‘Is it usual for short-haul lorry drivers to get a pension?’ said Calloway.

‘Search me, squire.’

‘Has she mentioned Berlin to Stan’s boss?’

‘Of course she has.’

‘What did he say?’

‘Told her he didn’t know what she was talking about. Made out she was hysterical. Offered to take her to one of those Harley Street doctors for her nerves.’

‘Harley Street?’

Webber raised his eyebrows and gave a knowing by nod. ‘Yeah, that’s what I thought. That’s pushing the boat out, innit? They could send her up the Maudsley on the National Health for nothing. Something ain’t right.’

‘Who’s she been dealing with at the haulage company?’

‘A fella named Denton. Oily git, by all accounts. He was the one that turned up with the copper to give her the bad news. He said she’d be well looked after, if she didn’t make a fuss.’

The whole business smelled rotten. Calloway knew that smell. It followed him around.

‘What did you come to me for?’

The little man smiled. He knew he was getting somewhere. ‘Sniff about, that’s all. See if you can get some proper answers. You’ve got a knack for it.’

It was a knack Calloway could do without. But ten years in the military police and six in the Intelligence Corps gave a man certain talents. Talents which can get you into a lot of bother in civvy street. That’s how he and Webber had become friends. A bad business at the speedway stadium they’d both played a part in fixing.

‘Vera needs peace of mind, Reg,’ said Webber. ‘All this not-knowing is tearing her apart. Just see what you can find out. I’ll pay the going rate. I’ve got money and it looks like you need it.’

Calloway bristled. ‘I’m not for hire, Bert, unless you want me to throw someone out of somewhere. That’s what I do these days.’

Webber looked Calloway up and down. ‘Yeah, and it don’t pay much, I can tell. When I first met you, you was straight out of battledress and straight into Moss Bros, like they used to say in the adverts. Sharp as a pin.’

‘I was straight into Allkits, Bert. My commission was temporary, remember?’

‘Suit, yerself. But, no offence, Mr Calloway, you look like a sack of shit.’

Calloway had knocked men out for less, but Webber was right. The past year hadn’t been kind to him. A succession of scrapes and lost jobs. His standards had dropped.

‘Look, there’s no shame in being down on your luck,’ said Webber. ‘And there’s no shame in accepting good money for a job, neither. That’s what I’m offering. I’m good for it.’

He looked Webber up and down. Handmade shoes, chalk-stripe suit, a showy signet ring with the initials AW. Webber was good for the money and flash with it too. Qualities not normally endearing to a man like Calloway, who should have sent the little rider packing the moment he showed up at the arena doors. But Webber ranked among the very few that Calloway considered a friend, to the extent that he’d ever had real friends. And the money was tempting. Doreen could do with some help. The pound or two Calloway gave her every other pay day didn’t go far.

‘I’ll talk to Vera,’ he said, regretting each word the second it formed in his mouth.

Webber beamed. ‘That’s the ticket.’

He reached into his inside jacket pocket and pulled out a wad of pound notes. He peeled some off and passed them to Calloway.

‘That’ll get you started.’

Calloway nodded and pocketed the money, but unlike Webber, he wasn’t smiling.


There were boys playing cricket in the street, in spite of the weather. They had a dustbin for stumps and a charred plank scavenged from a bomb site for a bat. Fielders in hand-me-down shorts shivered in the chill of the damp afternoon while a lanky lad in oversized corduroys walloped a tennis ball towards Webber’s car. The wet ball scudded across the windscreen leaving a greasy smear.

‘Little sod did that on purpose,’ said Webber through a wheezy cackle. A cigarette dangled from his lip as he wound down the window.

‘Oi, Dennis Compton,’ he shouted. ‘Watch where you’re hitting that ball.’

The boy flicked a V-sign. His entourage giggled.

‘Serves me right for driving a flash car I s’pose,’ said Webber. ‘Especially round here.’

Webber had picked Calloway up in his new motor. A pale grey Buick with red leather seats. Calloway had watched pride fight with inverted snobbery on the speedway star’s face when he wound down the window and asked Calloway to jump in. Webber still wasn’t quite used to that six grand a year.

They’d driven south along the Old Kent Road towards Deptford. They’d taken a left down Canal Road, past the speedway stadium where Webber and Calloway had met. Where Calloway had met Pat Moxon. He felt his stomach knot as they drove alongside the old tin fencing around the stands. He remembered the day over a year ago that he’d walked out on all of them. It was a memory that pained him. He was grateful when Webber turned into the grubby backstreets of Deptford.

‘I can’t promise she’ll be up and about,’ said Webber. ‘Been sleeping odd hours since the news about Stan. The place’ll be a tip too. She’s all but given up on housework, my Else says. Not that she was a big one for it in the first place. She was happier with a milk stout inside her and a fumble on the couch with Stan. They was always like that, even when they was courting.’

‘I’m surprised she wanted a television,’ said Calloway.

Webber sniggered. Then he looked thoughtful. ‘She’s a good girl, Vera is. Solid, you know. Won’t take no truck from anyone.’ He shook his head. ‘This business with Stan has changed her. She’s losing her grip, if you know what I mean. She flips from being angry half the time to being all maudlin. And she’s necking gin like the country’s running out. Starting early too.’

Webber turned into a narrow, cobbled street. Only half the houses remained. Mean little two-up, two-downs. Old dockers cottages by the look of them. They stood in a row along one side of the street. The other side was still a mess of rubble. Deptford had taken a pounding in the Blitz. Two little girls with mucky chops pushed a rusty doll’s pram over the cobbles. An impudent-looking fox terrier sat upright in the pram, like he was lord of this manor. Webber pulled the car up by the kerbside. He looked over at the two girls with the dog. One gave him a disingenuous smile. The other stuck her tongue out. The dog gave him a mischievous look.

‘Reckon I’ll lock the car,’ said Webber, pulling out his keys.

Vera came to the door in her housecoat. She’d lost weight since those few times Calloway had seen her in the caff. The kind of weight loss that trouble brings. The housecoat hung on her like it fitted, rather than straining at the seams like it used to. She looked tired and drawn. She’d made an effort with her hair, but it was half-hearted. Her bold, saucy cheeriness of old had packed up and moved out.

‘Bert,’ she said, her voice flat. ‘And Mr Calloway. I’ll get the kettle on.’

She turned and walked into the small dark hallway, leaving Calloway and Webber to follow. Calloway smelled gin on Vera’s breath amid the rancid fug of unwashed dishes. The two men stood in the kitchen in the awkward silence as Vera filled the kettle from the tap above the stone sink. The sink had three days’ washing-up in it, Calloway reckoned.

‘How’ve you been?’ said Webber, like he couldn’t decide whether to sound cheery or concerned.

‘How d’you think?’ Vera replied, without emotion. She rinsed cups from the sink and put them on a tray.

‘Mr Calloway’s going to help us, Vera,’ said Webber.

Vera looked Calloway up and down but said nothing. She carried the tray into the front room. The curtains were closed and the room was dark, lit only by the half light of the hallway through the door. She turned on a standard lamp in the corner. It cast a sepia glow over the cheerless surroundings. Webber and Calloway sat on the small two-seater sofa, each balancing their cups and saucers on their laps. Vera slumped in an armchair and lit a cigarette. She put the spent match in the saucer of an un-drunk cup of tea on the side table. Webber stirred his tea unnecessarily, for something to do.

Calloway broke the silence. ‘I’m sorry to hear of your loss, Vera. I really am. Bert here has asked me to help make sense of some things that are troubling you. I’ll do my best.’

Vera sniffed. ‘Good luck,’ she said, ‘because they don’t make an ounce of sense to me, luv.’

Bert nudged Calloway. ‘Ask her about the man who came to visit, the one with the copper.’

Calloway tried not to show his irritation. This was going to be hard enough without Bert chiming in.

‘This man Denton said he was from Stan’s employer. Had you met him before?’

Vera shook her head. ‘Stan worked all over. I never really knew who he worked with. They weren’t the sort of jobs where you get to take your missus to the annual dinner dance. I’d never heard of this Denton until he turned up on the doorstep to tell me my Stan had been killed in an accident.’ She pursued her lips and drew smoke through the gap in her clenched teeth. ‘Said he came off the road on a bend. Going too fast, swerved to avoid a car coming the other way. The weight of the ballast in the tipper had him over. Cracked his head on the side of the cab, Denton said. I asked if I could see Stan’s body, you know, say goodbye, but they told me I couldn’t. Can you believe that?’

‘It would have been quick, Vera,’ said Webber. ‘He wouldn’t have felt nothing.’

Vera shot him a look. ‘Oh, yeah?’ she said. ‘And how the hell would you know?’

Webber stuttered. ‘I was only trying to...’

‘Well don’t,’ she said. ‘I’m a big girl, Bert. I don’t need you to kiss it all better.’ She looked at Calloway. ‘My Stan’s dead and someone’s not telling me the truth. I’ll grieve for the poor sod later, God rest his soul, but right now I want to know why this Denton said Stan was killed in an accident in Stratton-Fenwick, when I know he was in Berlin, of all the places.’

‘We don’t know that Vera. Not for sure,’ said Calloway, half-wishing he hadn’t.

 ‘Then how come he had a Berlin train ticket and a flyer for a local girly bar in the pocket of his best suit? Explain that, if you’re supposed to be so smart.’

Bert shuffled, looking uncomfortable. He said, ‘Mr Calloway used to be...’

Calloway stopped him. ‘There’s a dozen reasons Stan could have had those things.’

‘What reasons?’ she said, pinching the butt of the cigarette and grinding it into the saucer on the side table. ‘Find me a reason that makes sense and I’ll buy you a toffee apple. Nothing makes sense, apart from the fact that I’m a fucking widow and I’m being fed a load of bullshit.’

Bert backed into the sofa. Calloway heard him whisper, ‘She’s proper angry now.’

Vera stood up and crossed the room. She lit another cigarette and held it in her mouth while she reached for the bottle of gin on the sideboard. She poured herself a good-sized slug.

‘What else did this man Denton say?’ said Calloway.

‘He said I’d get a payoff. That the company’s insurance would pay out, even though the accident was Stan’s fault. Reckless driving, he said.’

Bert rolled his eyes. ‘They all drive reckless, those short-haul boys. It’s not like Stan was any worse than the rest.’

‘Has there been an inquest?’ said Calloway.

Vera shrugged. ‘If there has, nobody told me.’

‘That strikes me as unusual.’

‘Does it?’ she said. ‘How would I know? I’ve never lost a husband before.’

She was agitated. Tense. On the edge of snapping.

Calloway adjusted his tone. He summoned up what passed for a bedside manner. ‘I know this is difficult, Vera, but if I’m going to help, I need to ask questions.’

Vera knocked back the gin and poured another.

Webber said, ‘Go easy, Vera girl.’

‘Don’t lecture me, Bert Webber. You haven’t been through this. You’ve still got your Elsie. Nice and cosy in your little prefab. I’ve lost my Stan. It’s just me now. And I’ll bloody well drink when I want.’

She took another gulp of the gin. Bert and Calloway lit up cigarettes. They both needed one.

‘He was no angel,’ said Vera. ‘He could be a right old devil when he wanted. I mean I could never really trust him. He was a good-looking man and he got the attention. He liked it an ‘all. But I kept him close. Kept him fed, made him laugh, made sure he didn’t go short of the other.’

Bert shuffled in his seat. ‘Steady on, girl,’ he said.

Vera waved it away. ‘He was a rogue, my Stan. An opportunist. Always a bit sly.’ She laughed. ‘I mean, he’d done a stretch, hadn’t he?’

‘Stan had been to prison?’ said Calloway.

‘Glasshouse,’ said Bert. ‘An army prison in Egypt. Got caught selling the signals corps’ radio valves on the black market to local shopkeepers. They banged him up for a bit. Must have behaved himself ’cos he got out early, as I recall.’

‘He was no angel, my Stan.’ said Vera. She drew on the cigarette. ‘But he was mine.’ Her voice wavered and her eyes welled up.

Webber stood up and put his arm around her. She pushed him away.

‘You’ve no need, Bert. I’m alright.’

Her stoicism looked skin-deep to Calloway. It was to be expected. But there was anger too. Plenty of it.

‘What else did Denton talk about when he visited you?’

‘Funeral arrangements,’ she said. ‘He said the company would arrange it all and that I didn’t need to worry about the cost. They’d pay for a nice send off.’

Webber whistled. ‘They must’ve liked him, Vera. Not many firms offer perks like that.’

They certainly didn’t, thought Calloway.

‘He had a load of questions too. About Stan,’ she said.

‘What sort of questions?’  

Vera sat back in the armchair. She was calmer now. Must be the gin, thought Calloway.

‘He asked if I’d seen Stan since he first left for Stratton-Fenwick. Had he come home to visit at weekends? That kind of thing.’

‘Anything else?’

‘He asked if he’d written me letters or called. I told Denton I’d had regular postcards, which surprised me to be honest, although I didn’t tell him that. Stan wasn’t the writing kind. I can’t recall him ever writing me a love letter, even when we were courting. He expressed his affections in other ways, if you know what I mean.’ She rolled her eyes and shook her head. ‘I got six postcards in as many weeks. Part of me suspected it was guilt. That he’d been up to something while he was away.’

The room was getting stuffy. The earlier drizzle must have cleared up and the afternoon sun was shining on the front of the house. Calloway wished Vera would open the curtains, but he knew she wouldn’t, and it would be impolite to ask. It was tradition. You closed your curtains when there had been a death in the family. Like flying the flag at half-mast.

‘Bert tells me this man Denton offered you help from a private clinic when he visited?’

‘That was the second time he called,’ she said.

Webber and Calloway exchanged looks.

‘You didn’t tell me he’d been again, Vera,’ said Webber.

‘Last week,’ she said. ‘’Cause I’d been calling him up. Demanding to know what was going on. He kept fobbing me off, but I wasn’t having that. Told him if he didn’t give me answers, I’d take it somewhere else.’ She looked across at Bert. ‘You know, David,’ she said.

Webber read Calloway’s quizzical expression. ‘One of her nephews,’ he said. ‘He’s a reporter on the Mercury. The local paper.’

‘That got their attention,’ Vera said, with satisfaction. ‘Two of ’em turned up on the doorstep.’

‘Two of them?’ said Calloway. ‘Did Denton bring the policeman again?’

Vera shook her head. ‘He brought a doctor. Talked to me about how I was feeling, how grief plays tricks with the mind. Gave me some pills for my nerves.’ She scoffed. ‘Nerves, I said. What nerves? I’ve just lost my husband. I’m not likely to be in the best of spirits, am I? I haven’t got nerve trouble, I said. I’m tough as old boots.’ Calloway didn’t doubt it. ‘But this doctor, he kept on about it. Like he was trying to convince me I was losing my marbles, you know, because of the grief.’

‘Private doctor?’ said Calloway.

Vera shrugged. ‘Smartly dressed. Blazer, cavalry twills, nice striped tie. Good looking sort.’

‘Did he give his name?’

‘If he did, I can’t remember. I was all at sixes and sevens.’

‘Have you still got Denton’s telephone number?’ said Calloway. ‘And the name and address of the haulage company?’

She stood up and crossed the small room to the sideboard. She was a good woman, Calloway thought. Confident, engaging and smart as buffed-up buttons on a tunic. Even in the half-caring dishevelment of grief, she retained an innate dignity. Stan had been lucky to have her. Whether she had been lucky to have Stan was another matter. She opened one of the sideboard drawers and rifled around.

‘Here,’ she said, passing him a business card with Denton’s name and number on it. There was no address or company name. She also handed him a payslip on headed paper.

‘Thank you,’ said Calloway, slipping both into the pocket of his suit jacket. ‘Just one more thing,’ he said. ‘What does Denton look like?’

She thought for a moment. ‘I don’t know. Skinny fella, I s’pose. Dark hair with a widow’s peak. Bit big in the chin.’

She turned her back to them and poured herself another large measure of gin.

They left Vera’s house and stepped out onto the street, their eyes adjusting to the late autumn sun. The two little girls were sitting on the running board of Webber’s Buick. The fox terrier stood sentinel by their side.

‘We minded your car, mister,’ one of the girls said.

‘Give us a shilling,’ said the other.

Webber pulled a coin from his pocket and tossed it towards them. As he unlocked the driver’s side door, the dog cocked its leg against the Buick’s wheel.


It was full house at the arena. A rough-looking lot too. All the local chancers, with their women in tow. Adult artful dodgers in too-wide suits, their hats pulled down over their eyes, their faces set firm. None of them smiling, except to greet others like them with a mean little grin and a nod. They sat close to the ring, at tables with tablecloths and candles in wine bottles. Mr Finnegan’s nod to nightclub sophistication, and an excuse to charge half as much again for ringside seats. The men stared through the ropes, their eyes fixed on the action. It excused them from chit-chat, or any other concession to perceptible enjoyment. These were the local hard men, in their own eyes at least. They gave no quarter where emotion was concerned. They weren’t much of a date for their women, these local faces, thought Calloway. Their dates sat there in their vulgar faux-couture, sipping their gin-and-Its, looking bored. It was a different story in the cheap seats, the long, hard benches you had to excuse-me along to get to the bar or the peanut stall. This crowd were packed in and revved up. They hollered encouragement and abuse in equal measure, singling out their heroes and villains from the night’s bill. Couples, groups of lads and girls in pairs. The lads stared transfixed at the fighters in the ring, their hungry eyes devouring the female flesh, as it grappled and bounced. They would nudge each other, winking, eroticising the contortions of the fighters in their oversexed young minds. The girls sought a different pleasure from the display, projecting the rivalries of their everyday lives onto the women on the canvas, like living voodoo dolls. For the couples it was a way of just being together, sharing in the fun, such as it was, holding hands and nuzzling up, lost in the throng.

And the smell of the crowd. God, thought Calloway. It was enough to turn your stomach. Five hundred unwashed bodies, basting in their own sweat, stale inside their overcoats. A monstrous odour, and more than a match for the cloying scent of the Brylcreem in their hair, or the lavender behind their ears, or the smoke of the Woodbines that hung from their lips.

A man in a loud check suit emerged from the office that overlooked the arena and adjusted his garish, fat-boy tie.

‘Mr Finnegan,’ said Calloway with a deferential nod.

Frankie Finnegan was the promoter. He ran the arena.

‘Good crowd tonight, eh, Mr Calloway?’ he said. He shot his cuffs and rubbed his hands. ‘Bodes well for the title fight.’

The two men looked down onto the ring from the gallery.

‘Trudi’s on form,’ said Calloway, for want of something to say. He watched Finnegan’s star attraction bouncing a fighter half her size off the ropes, to the boos of the crowd.

‘They love a good villain,’ said Finnegan. ‘That’s what they pay to see, and Trudi’s the best.’

The big fighter slammed her opponent onto the deck, like a butcher slapping meat on the block. The crowd hurled abuse. Trudi deflected it with a shaking fist. She bared her teeth and snarled.

‘She certainly puts on a show,’ said Calloway. How they called this a sport, he couldn’t fathom. Finnegan pulled a gold cigarette case from the inside pocket of his dog-tooth suit. He offered Calloway a cigarette and lit it with a shiny new gold lighter.

‘Hand-rolled,’ he said. He was a flash bastard, Finnegan, thought Calloway. But he had to admit, he’d never smoked a fag so good.

George the cleaner scurried up to the two men, panting, an expression of disgust on his old, sagging face.

‘There’s one in the gents again,’ he said.

‘I’ll deal with it,’ said Calloway. He ducked through the fire door and walked along the corridor at the back of the first-floor gallery. The smell of cheap pine disinfectant hit him as he approached the lavatories. There were three stalls inside, opposite a row of rank-smelling urinals. Two stalls were empty, one was occupied. Calloway kicked the closed door open.

‘You should put that down, pal,’ he said. ‘Before it goes off in your hand.’

A middle-aged man in a gabardine mac let go of his manhood and scrabbled to pull up his trousers. The man stepped out of the stall, his face flushing red. He edged past Calloway’s big frame, avoiding eye contact.

‘Don’t forget to wash your hands,’ said Calloway. ‘And don’t come back.’ He left the man in the mac to it. His work was done.

At the end of the night, Calloway made his rounds of the arena, turning out lights and testing the doors. The light in the wrestlers’ dressing room was still on. Calloway knocked and entered.

The room smelled of sweat and cheap talcum powder. Trudi Trauber was alone in the room packing her kit into a shabby canvas hold-all. She wore high-waist American jeans with a check shirt rolled up at the sleeves and men’s penny loafers on her size-nine feet. Her dark hair was up, with a roll at the front and a ponytail behind. At just shy of six foot with big square shoulders, she looked like a bobby-soxer crossed with a fire door. Someone you wouldn’t want slamming into you.

‘Reggie, liebchen. Wie gehts?

It took someone of Trudi’s height and build to speak German so openly. Wounds still ran deep in these post-war years.

Calloway shrugged. He’d just taken on a new burden and it showed in the lines chiselled into his face. He answered in German. He was out of practice and barely fluent, not like during the war when he interrogated German POWs as a sergeant in a field security section. But he could still hold a conversation.

‘I’ve just agreed to something I may live to regret,’ he said.

‘The story of my life,’ said Trudi. She kissed the fingertips on her man-sized hand and touched his cheek. ‘Thanks for defending my friend’s honour. I’m glad chivalry is alive and well.’

‘I’m not sure the man whose nose I broke will agree when he wakes up tomorrow. Or Mr Finnegan, for that matter. I’m waiting for him to haul me up on the incident.’

‘Frankie won’t do anything. I’ve had a word,’ said Trudi.

Trudi was the star attraction. She was worth a lot of ticket sales to Finnegan, which meant she could call the shots.

‘I’m grateful,’ said Calloway. He changed the subject. ‘You started wrestling in Berlin before the war, didn’t you?’

Trudi laughed. ‘Mud wrestling. Not so much a sport as a sideshow.’ She looked around the dressing room. ‘Back then we wrestled in nightclubs, not arenas.’

‘Ever hear of a Club Continentale?’

Calloway passed Trudi the flyer Bert had given him. She looked at the gaudy image on the front. She shook her head. ‘I don’t recall it,’ she said, then turned the card over. She gave Calloway a wry smile.

‘Potsdamer Strasse. I can guess what kind of club that is.’ She handed back the card. ‘Are you planning a little holiday, Reggie?’

Calloway flushed red. He shook his head. ‘Enquiring for a friend,’ he said, and then regretted it. 

Trudi raised an eyebrow. ‘If I didn’t know you better...’

‘I trust that you do,’ said Calloway, cutting her short. ‘Give you a lift home?’

He could barely afford to keep a car on the road these days, and it wasn’t much of a car at that, a 1938 Morris 8 with more dings and dents than a panel beater’s workbench. It was a small car for a man Calloway’s size, smaller still once the six-foot wrestler had climbed in. The pair of them wore it as much as rode in it.

‘So what have you agreed to that is causing you so much angst?’

A good German word, angst, thought Calloway. The feeling of fear that comes from the immense responsibility of the power of choice. He’d chosen to help Bert against his better judgement, against his instincts even. And now he was committed. He had Vera’s expectations to think of too.

‘I have a habit of getting involved,’ was all he said.

It was a twenty-minute drive to Trudi’s place that time of night. The roads were deserted, save for the odd cab and a street cleaning bowser spraying disinfecting water to dilute the filth in the gutters.

‘How does a Berliner end up wrestling in East London?’ said Calloway. He had often wondered this since taking the job. This was the first chance he’d had to ask.

‘When the national socialists came to power, they closed down the clubs. The Resi, the El Dorado, the Heaven and Hell. They all went. Too decadent for the new German ideology. The Nazis turned the El Dorado into a headquarters for the Brownshirts. Can you believe that? After that, I found it hard to work. I wasn’t cut out for a regular job.’ She laughed to herself. ‘Or a regular life, for that matter. Not regular enough to fit in with the expectations of the thousand-year Reich. I’d never been one for kinder, küche, kirche. And I had no intention of producing offspring for the master race.’ She paused, thinking for a moment. ‘You know they gave a medal to any woman that could produce more than four children for the fatherland.’ She shook her head. ‘My talents lay elsewhere.’

‘Like throwing young girls around the ring to entertain the populous?’

‘They’re not so young, believe me. And don’t dismiss all-in wrestling as entertainment. It’s strictly Lord-Admiral Mountevans rules.’

Calloway wasn’t convinced. Trudi’s ironic tone said she wasn’t either, although she was quite happy to play along. Admiral-Lord Mountevans and his radio-star pal, Commander Campbell, may have created sportsmanlike rules, weight divisions and formal championships, but Calloway couldn’t help sharing the more sceptical views of the press. From what he’d seen at the arena, the sport still relied on fakery and gimmicks, as much as sportsmanship.

Trudi pulled a cigarette case from her hold-all. She lit two cigarettes, passed one to Calloway and wound down the window a couple of notches.

‘So did you leave Germany for Britain?’ he said.

‘No. I went to Paris first.’ She laughed. ‘I didn’t have much choice. Ideology wasn’t the only reason I had to leave Germany. There were more pressing considerations.’

‘Such as?’

She took a long drag on the cigarette and blew smoke out of the half-open window. ‘Let’s just say I found myself on a side of the law that wasn’t conducive to a long and fruitful life.’

He was curious, but it was idle curiosity.

‘In Paris I met a French promoter,’ she said, changing the subject. ‘He was taking wrestlers to Portugal, to fight at the Campo Pequeno in Lisbon. He added female wrestling to the bill.’ She looked reflective for a moment. ‘The Campo Pequeno was some arena, I tell you. A grand old bull ring. The atmosphere at the fights was electric. The best I’ve known.’

‘So you sat out the war in Portugal?’

She nodded. ‘A neutral country seemed the best place to be. I moved to London in forty-seven, when the formal championships started up. That’s when Finnegan picked me up.’

She stared out of the car window, as they passed row after row of bombed-out buildings, their remains still to be demolished.

‘I miss Berlin,’ said Trudi. ‘Or whatever’s left of it.’ She turned to Calloway. ‘Have you been there?’

Calloway had been there in forty-six, when he was still in the army. He had been recalled from his posting in Palestine to support the war crimes trials that were just starting up. He had experience with war criminals. Too much experience. He’d been part of a unit that had liberated one of the first concentration camps the British forces found. He’d interrogated members of the kommandantur. He’d read their files, files recording the camp’s procedures and processes, cold and meticulous in their detail. His role in Berlin was escorting prisoners to Nuremberg for trail. One of them spoke out of turn, justifying himself, sneering and remorseless. Calloway had punched out his front teeth and broke three of his ribs. He avoided a charge but was advised by his CO to leave the army, quickly and quietly. Since then he’d been scraping a living as a jobbing security boss, in jobs that had a habit of turning sour. He didn’t share Trudi’s affection for Berlin.

‘I’ve been there,’ he said. ‘There’s not much left of it.’

He dropped her outside a block of flats. One of those low rectangular blocks with curved metal windows and a portico over the entrance. Not a palace, but not half-bad either. Trudi was pulling in a few bob as Finnegan’s star attraction.

‘See you Thursday,’ he said. ‘Big night.’

Thursday was the Southern Area title fight. Mr Finnegan would be upping the ticket prices. Trudi climbed out of the car and raised herself up to her full six feet.

‘I’m big every night, liebchen,’ she said, with a deep, throaty laugh.

It was past midnight when he arrived at his street.

‘You’ve got a visitor,’ his landlady said. She stood beside the stairs in a dressing gown that had seen better days. Her arms were folded.

‘No visitors after ten,’ she said. ‘That’s the rule.’

Calloway looked at his watch, although he knew the time.

‘I’m not expecting anyone,’ he said. ‘Not my fault if someone turns up when I’m not about.’

‘Rules are rules,’ she said.

He looked around the hallway, with its peeling wallpaper and brown stains on the ceiling. The smell of cat piss hung in the air.

‘A house in this state doesn’t deserve rules,’ he said, shaking the loose banister in his big hand. He felt her eyes boring into him as he climbed the stairs.

Doreen stood outside his door, half-hidden in shadow, little Maggie cradled in her arms. The toddler was asleep. Doreen looked relieved to see Calloway. She also looked scared.

‘I’m so, so sorry Reg, but I had nowhere else to go.’ Her voice quivered, on the verge of tears.

‘It’s alright,’ he said, as softly as his gruff voice would allow. ‘What’s happened?’

She hesitated, backing further into the shadow of the door well. She was turning her head to one side, shielding the right side of her face from his view. Calloway stepped towards her. She flinched. He cupped his hand under her chin and turned her head towards the insipid light from the bare bulb in the hallway. The side of her face was swollen. A bruise was coming up under her eye.

‘Jimmy,’ she said. ‘He’s been round again.’


You can read the rest of the story in DDC Morgan's latest Reg Calloway book Rope & Canvas...

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