Atom Heart Mother

‘I’m not signing.’

The grey-haired man pushed the cheque back across the table, the pen with it. The pen rolled onwards, stopping against a bronze statuette of a wolfhound at the edge of the walnut desk. The pen was a Biro with chewed end and ink leaked inside the shell. He stepped back, defiant yet unnerved.

‘I’m not going to be harassed like this.’ He hugged himself, drawing in the folds of a silk kimono like protective wings. The figure silhouetted in the window did not move. ‘And how did you get in here, anyway?’ The stranger gave an unpleasant snigger.

‘He’s been forward,’ the stranger spoke, his voice ironic, once musical yet roughened by smokes of various hues, provenance and transformative properties. The kimono-clad man leaned back on the desk, a burlesque of insouciance; ‘He’s been what? Forward? What on earth are you talking about, young man? Speak sense.’ ‘You know what I mean, Freddie,’ the stranger turned to the window and, had he not been preoccupied with maintaining as contemptuous a smile as possible, ‘Freddie’ may have noticed that the light outside the window was beginning to brighten.

‘He’s been forward. We took him forward. He’s seen what’s coming. And he doesn’t like it.’


‘He’s decided he’s going to…to pre-empt his critics.’ The stranger stepped away from the window, his long coat of thick, pure white fur swinging at his ankles. Round, black-lensed glasses fragmented the light that struck them into skittering droplets:

‘You’ve got five minutes.’

‘This is absurd, I’m calling the police.’ Freddie, back straight and ever-watching the stranger, reached for his BlackBerry Curve. The stranger gave a conciliatory laugh, as if being shown a Japanese toddler trying to roller-skate on YouTube but having seen the film before. ‘I am the police, Freddie,’ he reasoned; ‘He’s done what he promised to do; he’s cut away the red tape, downscaled, outsourced and rationalised and here I am. The New Police. Now write the bloody cheque, won’t you?’

‘If he humiliates us like this we’ll annihilate him. We made him,’ Freddie growled, the smartphone gripped in his fist like a flint axe-head.

‘He doesn’t care. As I say, he’s been forward, he’s seen the shit-storm that’s coming: The worst loss of a majority in Parliamentary history, Jon Snow calling for the death penalty for disgracing pubic office. And the queen’s first ever party-political statement; in support of Snow, in case you hadn’t heard. It’s all less than a year away. He needs to act quickly.’ The stranger crossed the room, brushed past Freddie, giving him a disorientating whiff of Chanel Ω. Freddie shivered.

‘So he sent his…his ladyboy thug to demand the menaces, did he?’

‘Yes…well, he certainly thinks it’s his idea.’ The stranger gave a conspiratorial grin as he flounced into a mighty, black leather chair. Freddie looked up in surprise, an old hustler’s curiosity flashing across his face.

‘You mean, he’s not the dog?’

‘Christ, no. He’s the tail, Freddie, always was.’

‘Who’s paying, then? No, let me guess…’

‘You’ll never get it.’

‘Oh, you don’t know me,’ Freddie waved a finger, sparkling like an ageing matador given an unexpected opportunity for one last flick of the cape.

‘If you don’t get it, you sign the cheque,’ the stranger offered. Freddie’s finger waved again; his face was reddening.

‘Oh, you’re a naughty boy,’ he laughed. Then, ‘done’. Freddie held out his hand for a gentleman’s shake but the stranger spread his arms as if in welcome, reclining further into the hide. ‘Well, it’s not the Russians. They lost all forward-tech under Yeltsin. Putin puts on a front but everyone knows they’ve got nothing. The US could do it but they don’t care enough, not now…wait, wait,’ he was becoming excited, pacing the room, rubbing his thumbs against his temples. ‘I’m looking in the wrong place. It’s a market, it’s a market…so, who wants the UK going under…my God, its the French, isn’t it?’

Nil points, Freddie, old chum. You’re so old world. Can’t say you’re even warm.’ Freddie banged his fist on the desk. The bronze dog remained unmoved but the biro rolled over the edge and onto the floor. The stranger sighed, stood up and picked it from the deep, lush carpet.

‘Wrong place, okay…got it…it’s a company. Of course. Haliburton? No, no, too obvious…everyone would think of them, first. General Electric? Can’t be them, just gave out a profits warning; Immelt would be smug as hell if he knew this was coming…Christ, are you working for the Chinese?’

‘Time’s up. And I even gave you a clue.’

‘You didn’t say anything about a time limit.’ As if in answer, the dull thud of a distant explosion sounded outside the window. A vase toppled, an African Mask on the wall swung. ‘Jesus, it’s got bright out there,’ Freddie gasped. The stranger found it eerie that the banker had noticed the light before the noise. Freddie ran over and looked out. All machismo left him. The stranger stood at his side. In the distance, the NatWest tower was in flames. A vast bowl of fluorescent light arced up from the City and from Docklands beyond. Helicopters and other less familiar craft buzzed and wove through the towers, releasing small bursts of artillery. A low block, topped with a conceit reminiscent of a Greek temple, sagged like a structurally-unsound sandcastle. Freddie steadied himself.

‘What’s the light for?’ he croaked. The stranger shrugged.

‘He wants everyone to see what he’s doing.’

‘What…what is he doing? What possibly…what’s his plan?’

‘He doesn’t have one. He just doesn’t give a fuck anymore. Wants everyone to know it. That’s not even the regular army.’

‘Come on, son, you can tell me who’s behind this.’

‘Sorry. Cheque-signing time.’

‘What possible difference could my giving back my pension make to anything now?’

‘Very philosophical, well done.’ The stranger held out a thin object and Freddie flinched. The stranger laughed and turned the nib towards himself, as when handling scissors. The banker slumped, old suddenly. A fresh burst of detonations shook the windows.

‘He’s not doing the whole city, is he?’

‘No, they’ll get to him before that. But the point will have been made.’

‘What point? You’re loving this aren’t you…you should…’ The stranger, with a bark of impatience, suddenly moved very fast. He grabbed Freddie’s arm and hooked it around his back at the same time as drawing a slim, elegant armament from within his coat. He pressed it against the back of Freddie’s head and marched him to the desk.

‘This coat is pure polar bear,’ he hissed in Freddie’s ear, ‘and I don’t want your blood on it. So sign the cheque.’

‘All right, All right,’ Freddie took the Biro and, scrambling, hand shaking, scrawled out numbers and signature. ‘Who do I…who do I…make it payable to?’ he struggled to breathe.

‘Just leave that part blank.’ Freddie slammed the Biro onto the desk, chipping the veneer. He began to weep. ‘Let it go,’ the stranger soothed. ‘It’s only money.’ He released Freddie’s arm and gave him an awkward but affectionate hug. Then he pulled the trigger, releasing a thin but needle-sharp sliver of ice into the banker’s brain. The tension eased from Freddie’s limbs; the stranger, distracted now, always antsy after a kill, lugged the body around and eased it into the big chair.

He picked up the cheque and walked toward the window; looking out, it had begun. Regular Army gunships were arriving, fat bumblebees amongst the Prime Minister’s black gnats. The Swiss Re Building had been beheaded, the top blown off like the crest of a termite mound. It was spreading, too. Firestorms were visible on higher ground, as far as Blackheath. The stranger took a smartphone from his pocket and spoke ‘Atom Heart Mother’ into the voice-dial. Whoever answered, answered immediately.

‘It’s Jerry. All done. I know, I know, I’ve got a great view from here. There was a bit of to-and-fro but he saw sense in the end. Of course. Me?’ Jerry sat down on the sill. He was shaking and the veins beneath his skin were darkening almost to black. He coughed. ‘Oh, I’m fine. Very thoughtful of you to ask. No, no, I couldn’t. The only reason I did this is that I know, for you, it was never about money. I will. You too. I think everyone will want what you want, now,’ he said.

He opened the window for a breath of air but clouds of some acidic brimstone had already rolled up from the north. It was time to go.

‘Anyhow, must go. Goodbye, your majesty.’

Jerry hung up with relief and leaned into the window frame. He reeled a pair of headphones from his pocket and tuned into a stream of Pink, by Boris. It seemed the respectful thing to do. After a few deep breaths, when he felt he was collected enough to enjoy the moment, he removed a transparent red cigarette lighter from his coat and set alight to the cheque, holding it out, framed by the distant carnage and letting the ashes be lifted away, one by one, to join the common anarchy.



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9 responses to “Atom Heart Mother

  1. Strong feel of a slick thriller, Exit.
    I paused often to reflect on your elegant writing. Your love for language so easily comes through.

  2. Thank you very much, Suzan!

    The Jerry Cornelius character was made open-source by Michael Moorcock back in the 70s; writers such as M John Harrison used him for short stories, usually with a satirical or political slant. I thought it might be a fun exercise to revive the character and style of these original stories.

  3. Hi Exit

    Yes,it would definitely. I agree. I’m reflecting on the fact that you’re a talented writer and that your mind would enjoy higher challenges. Hope I don’t sound patronising.
    Really liked the description of the fur, by the way. The words straightaway painted a flamboyant eccentricity in my thoughts. I thought that to be an excellent case of show and not tell.


  4. Hi Suzan,

    I don’t feel patronised at all, although I should say that there are several unpublished MSs under my bed (so to speak) that record my enjoyment of higher challenges! However, even my most serious work – the most personal pieces, or those most directly inspired by works considered canonical greats – usually integrate elements of horror, sci-fi, thriller, pulp, etc. If I say that, for me, the Singing Detective is great, great, personally-felt art, you’ll see what I aspire to. It takes literary concerns and pulp elements (hard-boiled crime, popular song) and turns them to the author’s purpose. Don Quixote, another personal pole star, does the same with the popular, maligned genre of the day.

    It’s a fine line, I appreciate, but when I’m writing and I find myself tipping too far one way or the other (too pulpy, or too literary and tasteful) all the colours seem to go out.

  5. @Exit: It’s a fine line, I appreciate, but when I’m writing and I find myself tipping too far one way or the other (too pulpy, or too literary and tasteful) all the colours seem to go out.

    This is so interesting. I would like to pick your brains a little about the combination of say, something film noir-ish and literature from the aspects of what you mentioned but I’m going to reflect on that for a bit. Would you mind too, if I referred to some examples of films that highlighted a literary bent without seeming to?
    Still, just off the cuff, what you say in the lines above, if you could place a self-consciousness out of the way while creating your fiction, doesn’t the writing voice appear to find itself and this sometimes in the development of characterisation, either proposing itself to be wholly rude or distinctly crisp?
    Are you often careful about what you write or would you let the words lead you up an unexpected trail? I’m both curious and intrigued.
    I’ll say though that when I was taken up about the image of his long coat of thick, pure white fur swinging at his ankles…that staightaway painted a picture and carried the story inside my head; I would think that to be a fine thing.


  6. @Suzan
    Some great questions there, thanks. I will reflect and get back to you.

  7. @Suzan

    Thanks again for your kind words.

    ‘are you often careful about what you write or would you let the words lead you up an unexpected trail?’

    It’s been both, at different times. When I first started writing, and didn’t read novels, it was the latter; I thought that was how writing was done. I learned the hard way that novels need a lot more structure and crafting than that. As my long-patient agent/mentor once told me, interrupting a comparison I was making between writing and a Thelonius Monk solo: ‘Writing ain’t jazz.’

    So I spent years learning how to structure and plot. I find it very difficult. The language and descriptions I don’t think about much but, bloody hell, coming up with 80,000 words that cohere into a compelling, maguffin-less narrative? That’s the grindstone, for me. At the plotting stage I try to be very, very careful. I once had my first novel taken apart piece by piece, plot hole by plot hole by someone with a lot of power to do me good. I wasn’t expecting it (quite the opposite): it was a day I never want to repeat!

    So now I alternate. I write free and spontaneous to develop ideas then, when something hooks me, I set about building a plot where, all being well, effect follows cause and characters act from character, not the pre-requisites of the plot.

    How about you?

  8. @Exit: I learned the hard way that novels need a lot more structure and crafting than that. As my long-patient agent/mentor once told me, interrupting a comparison I was making between writing and a Thelonius Monk solo: ‘Writing ain’t jazz.’

    Exactly the problem, I have now, Exit. Not so much with structure, as with the clear definition of a plot. I like characterization but am struggling with taking them gradually into conflicts and drawing them out again, in ways that don’t appear complicated to the reader and to myself. This is still a learning curve. I am better with sketching out a situation that involves an array of emotions as building blocks and few characters but am not good with vast spaces of time that stretch out into years and months. This especially, say in the way of a saga.
    So I understand the tight skills you specify for structure and plot. And I’m also interested in your methods for the last paragraph…something I devoured readily.

    I do know what you mean by having had your novel, taken apart piece by piece.
    The same thing happened with me when I worked in magazine journalism and a very good editor took over.
    He did the same with a few of my feature articles – in a quiet session – I still remember the interview subjects and it was a do or die situation. He wanted a good team and I had to change many things that included technique. This for magazine journalism. I did thankfully, and stayed on with him for years. But like you, Exit, I never quite forgot the moment. But I also valued the learning experience that opened my mind to creative possibilities I never thought would be allowed me in articles especially with the use of mood, tone, outrageous comparisons when drawing the reader in etc. It’s managed to stay with me even if I’ve left active journalism. Thanks so much for sharing.


  9. ISA

    Baron, I have a very decent proposal for you. Check acciacature.


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