Whodunnit?: The Line Up

Whodunnit?: The Line Up
image_print

The Line UP

She’s crying again.
Johnny lies on the couch and listens to the noises coming from behind the bedroom door. He doesn’t know how long she’s been awake, or even if she went to sleep. He knows for a fact that he hasn’t. Johnny’s been lying here, cramped up on this couch with his eyes closed and his head jammed wide open, scrambled messages from inner and outer space ricocheting around his brain.
Her noise, his silence: the soundtrack to their last three days.
It sounds like the tail end of something, though, this crying; muffled sobs into bunched up sheets that dissolve into trembling hiccups and snot-choked sighs. Johnny listens to her breathing; snatched and ragged at first, but then steadying and submerging, succumbing to the heavy depths of sleep.
Sleep.
Then a wail of fresh anguish leaps out from behind the door and fires into his gut like a harpoon. The renewed bout of sobbing goes on for another five minutes or so but seems like several lifetimes lived over.
I can’t stand very much more of this, he thinks.

All quiet now, except for the noise of traffic from the street below and a telly laughing away to itself in one of the downstairs flats.
Silence from the bedroom door.
The sun really pours into this place first thing in a morning, belting through the pale blue bed sheet that’s tied across the window. Johnny twists around on the couch, the hot sunshine spreading across his back, tongue clacking around in a cotton-wool mouth. He’s managed to kick the sleeping bag off in the night, and a blind fumble on the floor to retrieve it results in fingernails dipped in soggy ash and a glass of something spilt.
– Bastard, says Johnny.
He clamps his eyes shut and tries to burrow his way back down among the cushions, twisting onto his front, his side and then onto his front again. It’s useless. No matter how he twists his tired bones, Johnny can’t escape the glare of the sun
That relentless bastard sun.
Johnny thinks that he might as well get up, but as soon as his eyes blink open there’s a brilliant black flashbulb stamped straight onto his retinas. Screwing them tight shut again only sends tiny white circles exploding backwards into his skull. Johnny grinds his fists into his eye sockets and then sits with head between hands until everything gradually comes wobbling back into focus: the carpet swimming below him; the edges of the table; the telly to the left of the window; the radiators; the chairs; the blurred edges of the room beyond that. Johnny can’t see it properly, but he knows it’s all still there.
He wishes to fuck he wasn’t.
Johnny pulls himself upright and plants his feet on the carpet. He feels alright, all things considered. His guts are a bit chewed up and his head is throbbing like a bad tooth, but generally he feels OK. He’s fairly certain he’s not going to puke, but his throat and mouth are sandblasted dry and there’s an elephant standing on his kidneys. He needs to piss, desperately. But that means going through the bedroom.
There’s an empty pint glass on its side on the floor, a dark flower of water blooming out onto the carpet. Johnny contemplates pissing in the glass, but there’s at least half a gallon of liquid aching to leave his poor swollen bladder. For a brief second he considers pissing out of the window. He wonders what time it is, if it’s early enough for the streets to be deserted still. He has a snapshot vision of passing pedestrians being showered with filthy yellow rain.
Jesus Christ, he thinks, it’s your fuckin flat man! Just get up, go through there and have a piss.
She’s buried under a mound of sheets, magazines and discarded clothes. Johnny steps softly around the bed and into the bathroom. He unfurls toilet roll down into the bowl and drenches it flat with his piss. Then he fastens his mouth under the cold tap and gulps and gulps until he’s gasping for breath.
Into the mirror as he leans against the sink, Johnny stares blankly back at himself: hair plastered with sweat across his forehead, skin like cold congealed porridge, eyes two bloodshot flowers. He looks like a week old corpse dug up and dragged from its coffin.
Johnny leaves the room without flushing, picks his shoes up, and leaves the flat—pulling the door shut tight behind him.
+ + +
It’s hot outside, not a cloud in the bright blue sky and the street is indeed deserted. So is the road at the top of the street. There’s no one in the newsagents either, apart from Mr Kumar’s eldest daughter cutting the twine from a fresh bundle of newspapers. Johnny guesses it must be earlier than he thought. He gets a News of The World, ten Embassy Number One, and a bottle of Orange Lucozade.
He’s halfway back up the road when the cop van pulls up alongside him, blotting out the sun and freezing him in its shadow. As soon as the blue and yellow squares slide into his peripheral vision Johnny’s hand instinctively goes to his pocket; but it’s too late now, they’ll have clocked him. And besides, he knows he’s clean, at least on the outside. There’s still three days worth of dirt inside him. Cheap booze, rough-arsed sulphate and cheap-plastic-carrier-bag-dope playing stop-start with his blood, fizzing away at his guts, and fanning the embers that fall from the fireworks still displayed in the back of his skull.
Just don’t look them in the eye.
A young, blonde-headed, baby-faced copper hangs out of the passenger window.
-Excuse me sir? Wonder if you mind helping us?
– What with?
– We need men of your age group and answering your description for a police line up. Take about an hour of your time and you get paid in cash. You interested?
Johnny puts his hands over his eyes and squints into the shadows.
– How much do you get?
– Tenner. Fancy it?
– What if they pick me out though?
– Then you win the holiday.
The blonde police man smiles.
– Sounds ace, says Johnny.
– You fancy it then?
Johnny thinks about the flat and what’s waiting for him there. The sobbing and the screaming. The bloody battle renewed.
– Yeah, he says, – go on then.
Blondie hops out and opens up the back of the van. Inside is another lad who, rather alarmingly, does look a bit like Johnny – about six foot, dark hair, unshaven, tracksuit top and jeans. Except this lad’s got a sports bag at his feet and looks like he’s just emerged from the steaming showers of a gymnasium changing room rather than a cold ditch by the roadside. For a split second the lad seems as thrown as Johnny. He looks like he’s about to say something, some greeting or acknowledgement of their mutual likeness. Instead, he just gives a quick nod and looks away. Johnny climbs in, the doors slam shut, and off they go—holding onto the sides of the seat as the van picks up speed.
Well, thinks Johnny, this is different.
+ + +
The two policemen seem agitated. The van keeps slowing down and then speeding up again. Johnny hears the driver say: – What time they wanna start?
– Half nine, says Blondie.
-Time is it now?
– Quarter past nearly.
– Bastard.
The van slows to a crawl as they mull over their options. From where Johnny is, he can see the driver’s fingers drumming on the steering wheel and his eyes in the wing mirror, scouring the street behind them.
– Bollocks to it, he says. – William Booth?
– Yeah, fuck it, says Blondie.
They spin a three-point turn and shoot back up the opposite way, towards town. They roll up outside William Booth House and Blondie hops out. The driver keeps the engine throbbing, fingers still drumming on the wheel.
William Booth House. The local hostelry for the homeless and dispossessed. The Sally Army. Johnny thinks about the old lasses shaking their tambourines outside Prospect Centre at Christmas, the old fellas with a chest full of medals and swollen ruddy cheeks, blowing their last breath into proudly polished brass. Come and join us, come and join us. Johnny’s never been in William Booth – never slept there, anyway. Although he did nearly call on their hospitality one night, when a brutal week-long drinking session culminated in him getting filled in round town at about half past three in the morning. He’d crawled as far as the benches at the corner of Mytongate, where he’d curled up in a ball and passed out until morning.
Johnny sneaks another glance at the lad sat up the other end of the van. He looks like he’s bobbed off; eyes shut, head tilted back. Johnny thinks that the lad has got the definite look of him, there’s no denying. It’s not just the dark hair and the height, it’s the physical shape of his face. Especially in profile: the long slope of the nose; the firm jaw-line; the downward turn of the mouth.
Jesus, thinks Johnny, he’s the absolute spit.
Johnny realises he’s been staring like some sort of psychopathic stalker, so he turns away and forces his eyes out beyond the grille screwed across the back window. But the glare of the sunlight makes him feel nauseous and before he knows it his gaze has been pulled back to the other end of the van.
Johnny’s unease mounts the longer he examines the lad’s face. The bastard looks exactly like him, the absolute spit. The cogs in his head start to crank into gear again, and before he knows it Johnny’s managed to convince himself that this lad is his very own long lost brother, that him and Johnny were separated at birth and abandoned to different orphanages by heartless uncaring parents. That’s it, thinks Johnny, that explains everything. That’s what all the yearning has been about, this nameless sense of loss that’s haunted him as long as he can remember, this gaping chasm at the centre of his soul that’s pushed him haplessly from one disaster to another from the minute he was born. I’m not a bad person, he reasons, not a hopeless waste of bastard space like everyone says I am. No, I’ve just been ripped apart from me other half and cast adrift, left to stumble through the world on me own.
Jesus fuck, thinks Johnny. That’s it. That’s why I’m in this cop van. It was meant to happen. It’s fate. It all makes sense now.
This notion elates him for a few glorious seconds, quickens his pulse and lifts his mood. Johnny feels whole again. He’s found his brother. He fast-forwards their story in his minds eye: imagines the pair of them walking out of the police station locked in deep discussion; repairing to the nearest pub to tell their respective life-stories; laughing over a table full of drinks in a sun drenched beer garden.
But then the film reel in his head stalls and jams, then quickly reverses. The dark clouds rolling backwards to block out the sunshine and Johnny thinks oh fuck, no … that’s not it … that’s not it at all … this is not my brother … there’s no magic missing half to make me better … no happy ending here … this is … this is all a set-up … a fuckin set up by the pigs … its a conspiracy … a plot to eliminate me … no … not just me …people like me … that’s it … that’s what they’re doing … they’re rounding up anyone that looks like me … slinging them in the back of cop vans and slamming ‘em down forever.
Me, me, fuckin me!
Johnny looks at the lad again. That’s what I look like, he thinks, that’s what I look like when I’m asleep. That’s what she sees lying next to her when she wakes up before me. He remembers the time one Christmas when he was woken up by three sharp slaps across the face, her on his chest, pinning his arms to the bed with her knees. This was the day after she’d given him the money to go into town and buy presents and he’d spent all afternoon in the pub. And then the betting shop. And then the casino, desperately trying to win back the presents he’d drank.
The rear doors open and light floods in, jolting the Lad Who Isn’t Johnny awake. He and Johnny both turn with hand-shielded eyes as a procession of men clamber into the van. Johnny slides along the seat to accommodate the incoming bodies. They jockey for position as the doors slam shut and the van lurches off. One of the men cockles over as he’s trying to set himself down, falls sideways, his hand on Johnny’s knee to steady himself.
-Sorry mate, he says.
They get sat down and shuffled along, all of them wedged up tight. Johnny shuts his eyes. He can smell stale tobacco and strong deodorant.
No one says anything. They just cling onto the edges of the seat and necks and knees. The police van pulls away, and speeds up, the wail of the siren parting traffic as they fly through the city to Priory Road Cop Shop.
+ + +
The canteen at Priory Road smells of stewed tea and floors freshly scrubbed with chemicals. Empty plastic trays are stacked in front of fastened down servery shutters. Posters offering instruction or warning are dotted along cream and green walls. Radios crackle in the corridors outside.
The Line-Up are loosely assembled around the chairs and tables, a rag-bag collection of weather-worn clothing, ink-scarred limbs and rough, unshaven faces that gaze blankly around the room or down into newspapers or steaming plastic cups of coffee. Johnny knows he’s been lucky; all the times he’s been pelted out of houses and flats he’s always had a bird or a mate who’d let him crash. These blokes though, thinks Johnny, these blokes look like they’re no stranger to dinner queues or communal sleeping quarters.
There are seven of them scattered across the canteen. Johnny weighs them up one after the other. As far as looks are concerned he thinks that none of them really fit the bill, not for the purpose of this line-up. The one opposite him, the youngest looking one, he’s got the height and the dark unkempt hair, but his face is too full and rounded, too babyish with his clear skin. There’s a half-hearted moustache, a wispy lick of down that only serves to accentuate his tender years. Whispy Tache seems on edge, constantly shifting in his seat at the slightest noise from the corridors outside, his eyes jumping about like Lottery balls.
His immediate neighbour is a seasoned al fresco drinker some thirty years his senior; face a mass of ruptured vessels. A forest fire of acne rages around his cheeks and chin. To his immediate right; another countenance made ruddy by alcohol and the elements, this one fringed at the chin by a raggedy ginger beard, and split by a happy gummy grin. It was the happiest face in the room. It was like being selected for a police line up was the best thing that had ever happened to this face ever.
Happy Face gurgles away to a morose looking fifty odd year old with sad and heavy eyes that look down on heavily tattooed hands that turn an empty plastic coffee cup round and round and round, picking it to pieces and flicking the pieces onto the table.
The next bloke down is a lad in his mid twenties with dead black beetle eyes beneath the brim of a cap. He’s dressed in a grubby white Adidas tracksuit top and looks like any one of a thousand other young men you’d find slouched in the back room of a pub or banging the fruit machines in the town arcades. But there’s something vaguely familiar about him as well. Johnny searches his face for some clue but can’t fathom it. The lad seems utterly detached from the entire company; sat back in his seat, arms folded, thousand yard stare aimed beyond the walls and windows and everything else.
There are two more on Johnny’s side of the table. The one nearest to him looks like an ageing doorman gone to seed. He lowers a shaven head over Johnny’s discarded News Of The World, muttering curse words under his breath as he flips over the pages. The progress of his outrage is followed with keen interest by the man on his right, an affable looking bearded giant of a bloke in a filthy red quilted jacket that’s at least two sizes too small and thus strains to conceal the huge shoulders that roll with mirth and the big solid beer belly that shakes the edge of the table as he chuckles with delight at his neighbour’s vitriol.
The last two William Booth men are at the table across the room, sat opposite The Lad Who Isn’t Johnny. One is an old geezer well into his sixties who with a double-breasted de-mob suit and Bobby Charlton comb over. He looks like he’s been locked in a cupboard in a council house for the last forty years. His mate is a skinny cadaverous looking man in his late forties with a salt and pepper mullet and a huge pair of shiny black wrap-round shades. He looks like a rock star on hunger strike.

A sudden burst of muffled music, the first few bars of some Oasis guitar anthem. The Lad Who Isn’t Johnny digs into his trackie pocket and pulls out his mobile. He gets up from his seat and wanders over to the windows at the far end of the room.
– Alright? You get me text? Yeah … yeah, I know. Mad innit?
He glances over his shoulder at the rest of the line-up and then looks out of the window as he listens.
– Yeah, he says, – yeah, no problem … soon as I’m out of here … yeah …. Alright, laters.
He kills the call and pockets his phone, but doesn’t return to the table. He stays where he is and looks outside, a black silhouette against the bright blue window.
Johnny stands up and as soon as he does he wonders why he’s standing up. He feels like he should go over to the window, go and stand with The Lad Who Isn’t Johnny. But instead, Johnny sits back down. He feels his face flushing and his T-shirt sticking to his back. Johnny thinks he can smell himself as well, the sharp tang of salt as the residue of three bad days begins to seep from his body. Johnny folds his arms, crosses his legs, and waits.
+ + +
– Can I just have your attention please gentlemen?
Everyone looks round. There’s a blue uniform at the door. He’s holding a sheaf of documents in his hand and looks harassed.
-Lads, I’m really sorry but there’s been a bit of a hold up. Nowt for you to worry about, just a few problems with solicitors. But it does mean we’re going to be here a bit longer than expected. I apologise.
He rubs a hand over his head. He looks like he wants nothing more than to fuck off home to a roast chicken dinner and a can of lager on the couch. He looks around the room.
– Anyone who wants to go home can do so. But obviously we’d be grateful if you stayed.
– Do you get paid more money if you stay? asks Purple Face.
– Yes, says the policeman, – same again.
– Another tenner?
– Another ten pounds, yes.
– Spot on.
Purple Face leans back and rubs his hands together, obviously delighted at the prospect of a double helping of White Lightning and twenty Mayfair instead of ten. The copper casts another look around the assembled men.
– Everyone else OK with that?
– No.
Every head in the room swivels to the window. The Lad Who Isn’t Johnny walks back to his table and picks up his sports bag.
– I can’t stop, I have to get off, he says.
The copper says that it’s fine, its not a problem and tells him to go down to the front desk and he’ll arrange him a car to take him wherever he wants to be dropped off.
A voice in Johnny’s head is telling him that he should go as well. That he should get in that car. Maybe me and him are headed for the same part of town, he thinks. I should go with him.
– Anyone else?
The policeman looks from face to face.
– No? Happy to stay? Yeah? Yeah?
He’s looking at Johnny. Johnny can feel the panic swelling up inside him and he wants to say no, I’m far from fuckin happy to stay constable, but the words get stuck halfway down his throat and instead of a reply Johnny gives him a nervous laugh and what he intends to be a non-committal shrug. Instead it’s more akin to a startled horse trying to wriggle out of a noose.
– Nobody? OK.
The policeman nods at The Lad Who Isn’t Johnny and they both disappear out of the door. Everyone else returns to their newspapers and coffee and muttered conversations.
Johnny feels a sudden, hollow sense of loss, like the guts have been sucked out of him, and he’s once again been abandoned.
I shouldn’t be here, he thinks.
I shouldn’t be doing this.
+ + +
Johnny tries to piece together the last few days. Fragments are emerging, half remembered words and freeze-framed scenes floating from the fog clearing in his head. He remembers sitting with her in some city centre pub in the mid-afternoon, laughing and drinking, the sun winking off the bottles. She’s shouting something to him over the blare of the juke box, her mouth hot against his ear. Then another pub – Bluebell, he thinks, then another that he can’t remember the name of. And another one, with a table going over, and glasses smashing, and people rising from their seats, and shouting. He remembers suddenly being outside and the darkness rapidly closing in and the lights of the marina shimmering around him. He’s shouting her name. Then he’s in some other pub or club, hanging onto someone’s shoulder, babbling away ten to the dozen. And then a faceless, steroid-inflated monster in a black jacket and head-set has him by the shoulders, marching him down a long dark corridor. Then he’s out into the open air again, pushed towards distant streetlights and headlights. He weaves between the traffic, aiming wild kicks at passing taxis. Finally he’s back at the flat — kicking the bedroom door and telling her she’s a cunt, she’s a fuckin cunt, she’s a …
– I fuckin know you from somewhere.
Johnny looks up.
Thousand Yard Stare is staring across the table at him.
Johnny shakes his head.
– Don’t think so mate, no.
– Wa’nt you padded up with one of the Maguires in Hull? Dave Maguire?
– I’ve never been in prison in me life mate.
He narrows his eyes and cocks his head to one side.
-Do yer know Tully? Sean Tullyson?
– No…
– Goes in Griffin?
– No…
– What about Ragsy and Phil Best and all that lot?
Johnny’s shaking his head and saying no, no, but the lad keeps firing names and pubs at him.
– Look mate, says Johnny, – I don’t know any of em, and I don’t know you, sorry.
Thousand Yard Stare fastens his dead beetle eyes on Johnny’s and his lips tighten into a sour smile.
– I know where I fuckin know you from, he says.
– Where then, Johnny says, but Thousand Yard Stare doesn’t reply. Just folds his arms and stares straight at him. And everyone else is staring at Johnny now, all the rest of the merry men that make up The William Booth Roll Of Honour: Young Wispy Tash; Purple Face; Happy Gummy Grin; Tattoo Hands; Norman The Cursing Doorman; The Chuckling Giant; Bobby Charlton; and Hunger Strike.
All of them looking at Johnny
– You don’t know me, he says. – None of yers.
– Right we’re ready for you now, gentlemen.
Two policemen are at the doorway beckoning them all to stand up. Everyone rises and follows the officers down two flights of steps, through a long snaking corridor and past several glass fronted offices and through three more green and cream doors until they arrive in a small stuffy room with no windows.
A door at the far end of the room opens and The Suspect walks in, about five foot eleven, unkempt greasy dark brown hair, black jacket, dark blue jogging bottoms. He’s flanked by two other police officers and a bespectacled man in a dark grey suit carrying a suitcase. The Suspect’s solicitor, Johnny assumes.
One of the uniforms steps to the suspect.
– OK, he says, – as we discussed: have a look at these gentleman, and tell me if you have any objections to any of them appearing alongside you in an identity parade.
The Suspect looks at his solicitor and then at the copper.
– Are you for fuckin’ real? he says.
– You can choose three to eliminate, says one of the other policemen.
The lad walks around the room examining each of their faces in turn, sliding his eyes up and down.
– Him, he says, pointing to Bobby Charlton. – And him. And fuckin him an’all, he says, indicating The Chuckling Giant and Wrap Around Shades, who’s now removed his eyewear to reveal a pair of impossibly pinned pupils, like black grains of sand floating on a pale blue swimming pool.
They leave with a police officer and the men are then asked to form a line. Johnny attempts to move, but realises he hasn’t got the mental energy required to choose a position for himself. To move in any direction seems too loaded with potential significance, whether accidental or intended. So Johnny simply stands stock still, sweating like a bastard, and lets the line form around him. Thousand Yard Stare to the left, and Young Wispy Tache to the right.
– I’m far from fuckin’ happy with this, says the Suspect.
– Don’t worry, says his solicitor.
A police officer asks the Suspect to choose a place in the line up and after a couple of seconds, he elects to stand between Johnny and Young Wispy Tache. They part to accommodate him and then line up stands straight, looking directly ahead as instructed.
They stand there.
It’s too hot in here, thinks Johnny. And I’m thirsty. I can’t swallow, he thinks. I can’t breathe. He licks the sweat from his top lip and sucks down salty saliva.
– OK Jeff, says one of the coppers, and a colleague turns and exits, returning a couple of minutes later with a hard faced middle aged woman with steel grey hair and thick prescription spectacles.
– Take your time, says a policeman. – Be sure.
She starts at the far end and works her way slowly down the line; past Purple Face and Happy Face, past Tattoo Hands and Norman The Doorman. Up to Young Wispy Tache.
Johnny’s right foot has gone to sleep. He flexes his toes inside his trainers and his entire foot tingles with a million tiny explosions, the nerve endings slowly coming back to life. Johnny wants to raise his foot, shake it about to wake it up properly.
The Witness moves to The Suspect. She looks him up and down, and then glances across at Johnny. Her eyes widen behind her glasses and she takes one step backwards. Johnny looks back at her. He can see his own face reflected twice, one in each broad curved lens of her spectacles.
Wow, look at that, he thinks. There’s two of me.
He closes his eyes and waits for the hand on his shoulder.

Russ Litten

About Russ Litten

Russ Litten is the author of Scream If You Want To Go Faster and Swear Down. He is the Writer In Residence at a prison in the north of England.

Russ Litten is the author of Scream If You Want To Go Faster and Swear Down. He is the Writer In Residence at a prison in the north of England.

Leave a Comment

Your e-mail address will not be published. Required fields are marked *