From the house to the bus-stop on the main road, outside Portnoy’s Dry Cleaners, was a brisk seven minute walk in dry weather, although oddly enough, in the pouring rain it seemed to take longer. From the bus-stop outside Portnoy’s to the nearest stop to Albert Square was, in morning rush hour conditions, a journey of thirty five minutes ordinarily, although the word ordinarily had to be extended to allow for the regularly irregular occasions when, without warning or explanation, traffic would jam up and extend the ride to over the hour. From the aforementioned bus stop to the Town Hall steps was a brisk five minute walk, the timing of which did not, peculiarly, appear to be subject to the weather.
In short, if he were to leave the house at or before 8.30am, Declan Cuffe could usually expect to be at his desk in time for the first coffee round of the day at 9.30am. As no-one above his administrative level in the Planning Department ever actually got there before him, this comfortable embracement of flexitime usually ensured a serene start to Declan’s working day.
It went without saying that a person equipped with a white S Reg Ford Mondeo with power steering could considerably cut the journey time to work, albeit at the expense of an ongoing deterioration in the environment in and around the City Centre, but Declan had long since concluded that the stresses of finding a seat on a lurching, sweaty but usually pretty reliable GM Bus more than made up for the cost of parking in Town, and he could usually get at least half the crossword solved on the way. Writing it down neatly was another problem entirely.
There were, of course, exceptions to this long-standing routine. On occasions too numerous to number over the past four years, as Declan made his slow but thorough way up the promotion ladder to the rarefied heights of Principal Emergency Reconstruction Officer, the morning bus ride was delayed by the obstruction caused by crashed vehicles, crashed punks or buildings littering the streets as a result of impromptu demolitions, but since the mid-80s, Britain had become used to the side effects of their more colourful and less-restrained law officers.
Of course, the train would have been a lot easier, had the service been re-opened since the incident at Asbury’s Station.
This morning’s journey had gone tolerably well, for once, with the sun getting to work early to burn off traces of cloud, leaving Declan – who, despite the name, was not at all Irish, but rather 43% pure Lancastrian and 57% a Heinz of various county backgrounds – hopeful of getting in some cricket at the weekend.
Unfortunately, weather cannot always be as symbolic as we wish it to, and Declan’s cheerfulness ground to a halt with the bus on the approach to the Apollo Theatre. Traffic jams at the roundabout on the way to work were far from uncommon, but the failure of the bus to move for five minutes and the absence of traffic coming back suggested a more sinister reason.
Declan switched off his iPod and flicked the little white buds from his ears. The loving cocoon of isolation was an equally traditional component of the morning but whatever was holding them up was going to wind up on his plate sooner rather than later, and any advance word from the vine would be useful.
In this he was successful. No-one on the bus – not even upstairs – knew anything about why they were being held up. They were guessing wildly, of course: every local costume’s name was thrown in, but nothing that rang of fact was coming out of it. Declan had long since decided his allegiance was due the truth, the whole truth and nothing to do with rumours and settled to wait for them to make their way around whatever diversions had been hastily organised.
Whatever the problem was today, it affected the immediate vicinity of the Apollo Theatre, but with any luck that would spare Manchester the horrors of the forthcoming Westlife concert.
By the time he entered the Town Hall, side access, three floors to climb and a full two-thirds of the ancient Victorian pile to walk around to get to the Planning Department, he was 50 minutes behind schedule and conscious that he would immediately have to throw himself into the task of organising a clean-up team to remove whatever eyesores had been left this time by whichever of the city’s superhuman inhabitants it had been, with little prospect of carrying out any of his diarised duties.
Then again, he could have gotten here on time if he’d taken the short way. But he wouldn’t do that. Not again, not ever. No matter what.
Coffee first, no matter what. Declan slung his bag onto his chair, grabbed his favourite Far Side mug, and headed for the kettle, calling out various greetings to semi-distracted colleagues en route. Pauline Watson had turned up in a bright flowery dress, well short and rather low in front: Declan could see more of her than he had before, and still considerably less than he would like to. An unworthy, but fleeting thought in one married three years and father to a six month old girl.
“You saw the jams around the Apollo I take it, Dec?” asked Peter Haldane.
“Was in them, mate. Do we know who it is this time?” Declan asked, rapidly filling the kettle with enough water for a single cup.
“I’ve heard nothing certain,” Peter shrugged. “Alf reckons it was the Motorcycle Monster again, though no-one’s got any idea who tackled him.”
Declan dug a spoon into the Gold Blend, then added two spoonfuls of sugar to his mug, despite the knowledge that it would mean an extra thirty minutes at the gym, if he ever got there.
“Same old same old,” he said. “Is George in?”
“He’s got Fazad and Tom with him at the moment, and David Wise from Estates is coming over too. They’re probably waiting for you to join them.”
“As soon as I get this coffee. If I’m going to be stuck on this all morning, any chance you could see Madeleine Freeman for me about the new units at Cheetham Hill?”
Peter pulled a face. “If I must.”
“I know she’s a pain, but she holds the budget and we need to get that estate functional again, asap. We’re losing money whilst they dither about what to do with it, and it’s got to start generating income if we’re going to be in a position to roll out the development scheme next year.”
“I’ll see what I can do with her then. But I wouldn’t worry about budgets too much if I were you. Once Blair’s lot get in, there’ll be a lot more on the table.”
“Wish I was as sure of that as you are, Peter.” Declan added milk and stirred his coffee rapidly.
“Come on. The Tories don’t stand a chance of getting back in. New Labour’s a dead cert. Then we’ll see a lot better things happening.”
“I hope so. Better get off to see George. You’ll find the file in my cabinet, top drawer.”
“What do you reckon this meeting of yours is going to be like? It’s a bit of a rum do if they have brought down the Tyler Building.”
“The Tyler Building?” Declan said in amazement. “Bloody hell, is that what it’s about?”
“I should have said before,” Peter admitted. “It surprised me.”
“Well, I know what this meeting is going to be like,” Declan said, taking a first, overhot but necessary mouthful of coffee. “Doom, gloom, disaster and despondency.”
George Masters, Director of Planning, had offices just off the central staircase. Declan breezed in with his coffee, finding his Director ensconced at the head of a round table, currently sprouting paperwork from Fazad Kumar, a tall, straight-backed man in his early-thirties, wearing the kind of sharp suit that suggested a desperation to transfer to the private sector before New Labour revealed itself as still being socialist, and a file of designs and blueprints from Tom Warburton, a balding, beefy man in shirtsleeves and his late fifties. Financial Director and Chief Projects Engineer, Declan thought. Thank God I’m not going to be in here long.
“Morning, gentlemen,” he said affably. “George, sorry I’m so late but, irony of ironies, of course…”
“Yes Declan, I’m well aware that you still travel by public transport, even though it interferes with your duties,” Masters said. He was a heavy-set, almost burly man in his mid-thirties, part of the new breed of professional executives, with the look of the rugby player he was at weekends, and some of the subtlety of the breed. “Nevertheless, we have urgent matters to consider.”
Declan nodded. “Do we have a Briefing Paper yet? No? You’ll have to fill me in on details, gentlemen, I have nothing but rumours yet. Is it true that it’s the Tyler Building that’s affected.”
“Unfortunately so,” supplied Fazad. Declan grimaced.
“Nasty,” he said.
“More than nasty,” said Masters, “it’s a potential disaster for the Council, and one we can ill afford with a new Government on the horizon.”
“It can’t be that bad,” Tom said, rumbling. “Our Elected Members aren’t likely to change that much. If anything, the Labour Group will probably get even stronger.”
“I’m not talking about the political make-up of the Council,” Masters said, sternly, “but the effect on our image. This could easily be made an issue as to our competence. Not to mention the financial implications.”
“It can’t be too bad though,” Declan said. “I worked on their reconstruction project, what was it, seven years ago? They’re insured to the hilt. Although they were also designed to be super-proof. We saw to it with the architects.”
“Exactly,” Masters said. “I’ve already been informed by their Manchester CPO that Regina King herself is flying up here, and that woman isn’t going to sit back and pay for anything she doesn’t have to. It was our rebuilding requirements that her Architects took into account, and since they’ve quite obviously been proved inadequate, we shall be in the firing line for certain.”
“Speaking of certainty,” Declan put in, seeing a quick exit for himself, “what do we actually know? Circumstances? Culprits? When did it kick off? This is superhero action, I take it?”
“Yes,” Fazad confirmed. “We await a full account of the known circumstances, but our understanding is that a disturbance was reported at 5.45am, with a series of impacts thereafter, bringing down part of the building and spilling out into surrounding streets. The Police were on the scene as a quick as is permissible under current guidelines and barricaded streets to prevent access to the scene. We have been given to understand that the main culprit was the Monster Biker, though as far as we are aware, no-one has been taken into custody. Who might have confronted him, we don’t as yet know.”
“Not relevant,” Declan said, practically. “Not unless it’s the Gasman, in which case we’ve got massive environmental examinations for toxicity, and a whole heap of fumigation to think about. Details are my job, gentlemen, so I suggest I head over there and find them out for us. Unless there’s anything else I need to know from you now, I’ll make a start.”
No-one had any pressing reason to keep him, although Masters looked as if it would have given his day a distinct uplift to have done so. Declan was used to that: senior officers who precede a new Director need to keep their noses clean or else have advance access to Local Government Vacancies.
On the other hand, being both quick and extremely meticulous about your job is a sovereign protection against unwanted direction.
“I’ll get you a Briefing Paper as soon as I return, George. Don’t worry, I’ll get everything the Police know, Sammy Norton won’t hold anything back from me.” Tom made a noise that sounded like a snigger.
“Detective Inspector Norton has already agreed to provide me with a formal summation by noon,” Masters said.
“That’s Sammy for you,” Declan agreed. “Don’t worry George, I’ll get the real information for you before then. Later.”
4 thoughts on “The Return of the Purple Puffin – Day 1”
Tension is being built up to lead reader to expect something will happen. Nice use of contradictory phrase ‘regularly irregular’ – gives prose good rhythm.
Reading ‘Portnoys’ in first line immediately made me think of the famous novel – don’t know if this is intentional: many of the names seem carefully chosen to suggest something.
Lots of detail which suggests writing’s well-researched.
Use of wit – e.g. reference to Westlife – is nice touch as it gives relief from tension and makes characters more well-rounded and human.
Thank you, desde, much appreciated. I hope you continue to approve of things.
I’m in two minds about retaining Portnoys. It depends on how my main character develops whether the reference becomes a touch of foreshadowing or becomes a distraction.
I appreciate the comments.