Although it is the time of year when turtle doves are eyeing each other up, and guys and dolls are cooing over each other, some of us are a little on edge as the day approaches, realising that it’s also the anniversary, almost centenary, of the infamous event.
I get to the restaurant, Guiliani’s new joint in the refurbished harbour area, at the time they tell me. I show my press ID to the gorilla on the door and recognise the guy is Ricky Bombolini, known as Bambi because he is the biggest and also the ugliest guy you will ever have the misfortune to block your field of vision. This is a big story to cover, an exclusive. The two families are getting together for the first time ever: the Contraltos and the Zabaglione clan. The deal is that Danny Zab is proposing to Maria Contralto and the two dynasties will be united, which means they’ll have pretty much the whole city stitched up between them.
By the time I walk in, it’s pandemonium – looks like some kind of bloodbath has been going on. This ecclesiastical guy in white robes is stretched out on the floor, his stomach arched towards the heavens like the dome of St Peter’s, covered in scarlet blotches, head lying in a crimson pool. Chairs and a table are overturned, food everywhere, and the place is splattered with gore and god knows what. Despite this, everybody – except the clerical personage – is on their feet, waving their pieces in the air, shouting and laughing and hugging each other.
This is crazy, so I see my old contact, ‘Buddy’ Budino, pull him aside and ask him for the lowdown. He wipes a smear of red gunk off his chin, licks his fingers, and tells me.
So, we’re in the middle of dinner, says Buddy, the two families, or outfits you might say. We’ve had the antipasto, we’ve had the pasta, we’ve finished a few bottles, all ready to go at the dessert, when the street door opens and these three guys stroll in carrying violin cases. How they get past Bambi we have no idea – we hear no shots or nothing. Immediately the place is in uproar, all of us on our feet pointing our pieces at these guys, shouting warnings. Except for Toni Contralto, who likes to watch others doing the work, and old man Zabaglione who couldn’t get up if he wanted to because of the recent prostate situation – you don’t want to hear about that.
And Danny’s saying, Cool it, guys, it’s only Pasco.
So then the proverbials really hit the fan because Pasquale is Danny’s half-brother and the black sheep, for a number of reasons. He and Danny always quarrelled, so of course everyone thinks he’s come to break up the party and do some mischief.
But Pasco holds up his hand and says, Okay, okay, calm down everybody. I’m a family member, ain’t I? He puts his violin case on the floor, opens it up, and what d’you think’s inside? A violin, stupid. He was always musical, that kid. He lifts it out, tunes it a bit while the other two guys are doing the same, and before you can say ‘Cosy Fan Tooty Frooty’, they’re playing a string quartet, though without the cello who apparently never showed up. Sophisticated stuff. We’re all appreciating it, the old folks nodding and looking misty-eyed as if the prodigal is redeeming himself, you know what I mean? When that’s done, Pasco launches straight into Marry You – the Bruno Mars’ one, real romantic, doing this cute tenor thing. And all the while he’s singing he’s coming closer to the table and some of the guys are getting edgy again, keeping their weapons up. Maria’s looking spaced and confused. I guess she thinks she knows what’s coming and don’t know how to react. And sure enough when Pasquale gets to the end of the ditty, he’s down on one knee, raises a hand to reassure the guys while the other reaches into his pocket. Pulls out this big sparkler on a white gold ring, holds it up and makes a pretty speech, asking permission from the parents, and so forth, and before you can say, Holy Cannoli, he finishes up with,
Carlo Contralto, will you be my husband?
Well, none of us sees this coming. And no one wants to mess with Carlo Contralto because as well as being middleweight champ of the whole east end, he’s a popular guy, you know, the darling of the family. He already has daddy, Toni Contralto, eating out of his hand, while old man Zabaglione is sitting there with a moist look on his face – he’s known to have a soft spot for the pretty boys, you know what I’m saying? – maybe that should be a hard spot, hey! (Buddy is never that great at delivering the funnies.) Only the matriarchs are complaining, going on about grandchildren. But Pasco has that covered too, handing them leaflets about surrogacy agencies and telling them they should think about getting into this business – it could be a nice little earner for them, some income independent of their husbands.
So, that was that, deal done, everybody happy. Danny, who never fancied Maria much, for reasons which are now clear to everyone, doesn’t have to do his proposal, while Maria, who has a juicier piece of steak lined up for herself with no mob deals attached to it, is happiest of all. For the first time ever, the Contras and the Baggies are cosying up and liking it.
So, I say, okay Buddy, but what about the massacre?
Oh that, says Buddy. That happened next.
So, after all this, we lock the doors, letting Bambi in to join us for dessert. Now despite his name, Bambi has little sympathetic feeling for what it is to be light on your feet, you know what I mean? In fact, very little sympathetic feeling for anyone at all. When he hears about the goings on that have been going down, he starts making remarks about the ‘Castrato’ family. In response there’s a reference to ‘the Fagliones’. So then Toni is on his feet and says in his booming not-to-be-argued-with voice: Gentlemen please, enough of the verbals, there is ladies here. He picks up an untouched dessert, carefully using one of Giuliani’s plush gingham napkins, and lobs it straight at Bambi. Now Bambi can take a hit; he’s had bullets, knives, wrenches, the whole toolbox thrown at him, but he’s never before been whacked by a panna cotta. For the first time ever his face is looking like his namesake’s, and that is a sign for all of us to start flinging food at each other – bread rolls, cheese, fruit, chocolates, desserts. Soon, it is carnage, as you will have observed. Everyone is at it, even the ladies, especially the ladies, screaming with laughter all the while. Everyone, that is, except for the priestly individual.
They arrange for Bishop Lampone to be there to bless the couple. He’s into his sixth glass of Valpolicella, plus a few aperitifs, and is communing with a serious slab of tiramisu whilst trying to avoid the flying victuals, when Toni leans over and reminds him, in his whispery persuading voice, that he’s still expected to do his blessing thing. So the bishop gets to his feet, looking apocalyptic…apoplexic…is that a word? Shades of purple, anyway…stares at Pasquale and Carlo who he’s known since they were choirboys, goes through a whole spectrum from mauve to bright red to deathly white, his eyes roll up in his head and he crashes to the floor like an east end high-rise being demolished. So, he’s lying there, spattered all over with raspberries, head in a puddle of Valpolicella. We call for an ambulance but nobody volunteers to do CPR – most of us guys have been through his choir so the holy gentleman is not too popular.
So that is it. That’s where you come in.
And that was Buddy’s account. I couldn’t use much of it and it ended up as two column inches on page nine. The Bishop was a separate announcement with a full-page obituary a few days later. I left out all references to food. Not much of a memorial to the infamous events of 1929. I mean, who’s going to remember this in a hundred years?
All Hallow’s Eve, and the young demon, Mogg hurtles towards the gates of Hell, racing with his peers through tunnels and subterranean courtyards like a colony of bats. Tonight is when newly-ordained demons are allowed out for the first time to maraud in the realm of mortals, an occasion for which they have trained for aeons. Mogg’s witch-mother, Magg, taught him the techniques by which to terrorise men and women and their younglings. ‘Go for the vulnerable,’ she’d say, ‘The sick, the poor, the addicted. They say, there’s no such thing as devils; we say, there’s no such thing as society. Remember the three Fs: Fright, Freak, Fry. Scare them first, so they doubt themselves; freak them out so they start thinking you actually exist…’ (Mogg can never get his head round this one: surely, he does exist?) ‘Finally, when you have them for eternity, fry them, roast, stew, whatever you like.’ Mogg’s favourite is kebabs.
Passing out of the glowering portal of Inferno, he circles, viewing for the first time the legendary motto carved above the gateway: Abandon Hope All Ye Who Enter Here. With a screech of glee and anticipation, he rises on silky black wings and speeds north, over woods, lakes and mountains.
Gliding down towards a sprawling metropolis, he avoids motorways with their roaring carriages, and main streets with their teeming crowds, alighting in a shadowed alleyway. The warm fug of the city, choked with fumes, and the sulphurous glow of lamps, are comforting. He edges towards a bigger thoroughfare, where a sign on a pitted, peeling wall says, Argyle Street. Human-shaped figures shuffle along, moving with the wingless, earthbound gait of mortals. It’s time to start work.
Creeping in the shadows, Mogg identifies a potential victim: half-lying, half-sitting by the wall, so thin it’s well on the way to being a skeleton, a hood masking its face. Clearly halfway to despair already; a soft target to begin the night.
Coiling himself, Mogg leaps in front of the figure, arms raised, clawing the air with his talons, spreading his baleful, batlike wings, baring sabre-like teeth and emitting a throaty hiss.
The head slowly looks up and glazed eyes attempt to focus on the demon.
‘Alright, pal,’ it says cheerily, ‘any spare change?’ It holds out a small vessel.
Mogg steps back, not understanding the earthy, gutteral syllables. Crouching, he gives a menacing growl.
‘Nae worries. Hev a nice evenin’.’ The head droops, it pulls the hood back over its face.
Not as easy as he thought, he realises, as he half hops, half flies further along the street. He stops by an imperious, intimidating edifice: grand steps sweep up to a colonnade supporting a graceful portico. It reminds him of ancient temples and architecture he saw in the Other Place. He’d been taken there once, to those sickening heavenly spheres, to show him what he was missing. Across the front of the building, a motto:
People Make Glasgow
It seems unfinished. People make Glasgow what? he wonders. Great Again? Better than Edinburgh? The demon sneers. How can mortals make anything? Everyone knows, only gods can do that. Devils certainly can’t – though they’re wicked at destroying things – and he’s pretty sure these creatures can’t either.
He sidles towards another figure standing by itself, its fellow earthlings making detours round it. More robust this one, a hairy, grizzled creature, advanced in years, an age when they tend to weaken, giving in to fears and delusions. Ripe for picking. It holds something in its arms that reminds him of the lyres he heard in the Other Place. He recalls their pathetic twanging.
With his best bloodcurdling shriek and a blast of flaming breath, he flies straight at the earthling.
‘This is my patch, son,’ it growls, starting to beat its lyre with the vigour of Hell’s blacksmiths, and yelling at a volume that renders Mogg’s screaming thin and feeble:
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG
I WILL BE KING…
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG
CLANG, CLANG, CLANG
YOU WILL BE QUEEN…
Mogg reels back, head ringing. Attuned to the hammers, bellows and screams of home, this racket takes it to another level. With a wail, he scrabbles on all fours into a side-alley, a dark doorway. Gasping for breath, he calms himself with lungfuls of fumes from the carriages, and rank smoke that hangs in clouds around certain lurking figures.
Soon, the sound of high, piping voices alerts him to the approach of a cluster of younglings – a small skeleton, a half-grown devil, a were-puppy and a baby ghost. This is more promising, they’ll be wide-eyed, gullible.
‘Trick or treat, mister?’ they call and he leaps high, swirls, hanging in the air, shrieking and landing crouched in front of them, flashing his eyes, this time green.
‘Haha, that’s wicked. Nae bad costume.’
‘Wit’s yer team?’
Mogg freezes. He’s no idea what they’re saying, but smells no fear.
He opens his mouth and a whiney, strangled sound issues from it.
‘Yous English or what?’ says were-puppy.
He croaks some more and spits a sizzling gob of blood-coloured goo at their feet.
‘E’s aff his heid.’
‘Wha’ a bampot.’
‘That’s ma feckin’ trainers, ya dobber.’
They push past, jostling him. He lands face down on the cobbles near a sour-smelling splatter that looks as if it was, quite recently, a kebab.
Humiliated, empty-handed, not even the first of Magg’s three Fs achieved, Mogg gathers his last strength. He runs, extends his wings and lifts off, rising above the streets. Sounds carry through the still air: traffic, voices chatting, shouting, bottles clinking, the last notes of ‘We can be heroes…’ He yearns for the comfort zone of home, yet wonders if he couldn’t perhaps find it here, too.
Gliding by the wide river, he passes a wall that carries the same motto he saw earlier, but this time completed in a crude, handwritten script:
People Make Glasgow … Fierce, Fun and Fucking Fabulous
Agnes Longlisted for the 2018 Bath Flash-in-Novella Award.
LISTEN to Chapter One of Agnes
LISTEN to Flash Fiction:
Pheasant Shortlisted for the 2017 Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction
Bill’s Sentence Shortlisted for the 2016 Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction
The Time It Takes Highly Commended in the 2012 Bridport Prize for Flash Fiction