Eighteen hundred hours.
Mary and Daddy Bear waited anxiously in a stolen van parked opposite the betting shop. They hadn't really needed to steal the van at all: it would have been just as easy to use Mary's car for the job, but Mary had argued that if they weren't going to do it properly then they might as well not do it at all.
"The shop must be about empty by now," said Mary. "We'll go in."
Mrs. Lumps was in the back. She had insisted that they tie her up and then beat her mercilessly around the head with a coffee table. She obviously enjoyed this sort of thing immensely and Daddy Bear was unnerved by the way she smiled through it all.
"Ooh this is fun," she said excitedly as Daddy Bear helped her from the back of the van. She pressed a handkerchief to her nose to stem the flow of blood. "Can you kick me in the ribs again please? I really enjoyed that."
"No!" snapped Daddy Bear.
"Oh please," Mrs. Lumps pleaded.
"Mad woman," Daddy Bear muttered to himself.
"Come on!" said Mary urgently. He pulled the coffee table out of the back of the van and hefted it onto his shoulder, then they hurried across the road and burst into the betting shop.
"All right, nobody move!" Mary roared as the door swung shut behind them. "This is a hold up! I've got a coffee table and I'm not afraid to use it. Hand over the dosh or we give Mrs. Lumps a good drubbing. And when we've finished with the coffee table we've got a sawn-off wardrobe out in the van, so just watch it."
The shop was empty. There was only one cashier behind the glass partition: a rather severe, middle-aged woman. "I'm sorry," she said, frankly unimpressed with Mary, or his furniture. "We're closed."
"This is a hold up," Mary explained. "We don't want to place a bet, we're robbing you."
The woman scowled at them. "Well we're still closed," she said sharply. "I suggest you come a little earlier next time." The cashier smiled at Mrs. Lumps. "Hello Edwina. How are you?"
"Fine thank you, June," Mrs. Lumps replied cordially as she coughed up blood onto the carpet. "I think I've got a bit of a cold coming on."
"My Alfie's got a terrible cold," said the cashier. "There's stuff pouring out of him left, right and centre. I think there's a bug going around. Anyway, what brings you here - another kidnapping?"
"I'm afraid so," Mrs. Lumps said. "You know how it is."
"Yes, of course," said the cashier. "This is the fourth time this week. You've just missed your husband. He's nipped out to the stationers, but he shouldn't be long. Do you want to come and bleed in the back? I've just put the kettle on."
"Hang on! Hang on!" Mary interrupted. "We're supposed to be robbing you, remember?"
"And I've already told you, we're closed," said the cashier. "You'll have to come back tomorrow."
"Sorry boys," Mrs. Lumps apologised, and she smiled at them as they trudged outside.
"Well that's just great," Mary said as they stood dejectedly on the pavement. "My career as a criminal is over before it's begun. You know, for once in my life I thought something really exciting was happening."
"Well maybe it's not such a bad thing after all," Daddy Bear said, secretly relieved that all had not gone as planned.
"No, I'm not finished yet," Mary said determinedly. "I set out to be a criminal, and that's precisely what I'm going to do. Look over there."
Opposite them on the other side of the street Mrs Linda Globule was happily handing out leaflets to the last of the day's shoppers. Suddenly she was greatly surprised to find herself accosted by Mary Vicious Bastard, the hardened double-glazing salesman.
"All right, hand it over!" Mary bellowed. "And no funny business."
Linda smiled and handed him a leaflet. "Of course sir. There you go."
"I beg your pardon?" Mary asked, feeling a little heady. To his recollection no one had ever called him 'sir' before.
"Your leaflet sir," said Linda slowly, sensing his confusion. "You know, not many people take an interest in the plight of terminally confused albino donkeys."
"We're trying to raise money to fund a rehabilitation programme for the many albino donkeys that have fallen victim to the terrible stresses and strains of everyday life."
"Wait a minute, I've just stolen this from you." Mary waved the leaflet in front of her, a little concerned that he wasn't creating exactly the right impression. "Aren't you going to shout for the police?" he asked.
Linda looked puzzled. "Why? The leaflets are free."
"Yes, I've been giving them away all day."
"Giving them away? Well where's the fun in that?" said Mary with a note of profound disappointment in his voice.
Linda shrugged and rattled a tin under his nose. "Would you care to make a donation?" she asked.
"What?" Mary said. He frowned as he felt in his pockets. "Sorry," he said, "I've only got this twenty pound note."
Linda snatched from him and stuffed down the front of her blouse. "That's very generous of you sir," she said. "I'm sure the donkeys will be very grateful."
"Wait a minute - " Mary started to say, but as he spoke he heard an approaching police siren, and a squad car came screeching around the corner.
"Come on," Daddy Bear said as he grabbed Mary from behind. "I think it's time to get away from here."
The two of them ran off, disappearing into a side street. Linda Globule watched them as they went, a playful smile flickering at the corners of her mouth. She emptied the contents of her collecting tin into her pockets, laughing quietly to herself. Then she reached under her chin, and with the thumb and forefinger of her left hand she took hold of a small flap of loose skin. Gently she pulled and a thin sheet of latex began to detach itself from her face. Beneath the rubbery mask a wizened, leathery visage was slowly being exposed. The mask popped and crackled as it released its grip on the warts and boils that adorned her real face. For 'Linda Globule' was merely a cunning disguise. The mask fell to the floor and the old woman threw back her head and laughed.
Whenever fear and death stalk the streets, there, lurking in the shadows is Granny Malone!
Whenever earthquakes and catastrophes wrench nations asunder, there, revelling in the destruction, is Granny Malone!
Whenever you can't find the end on a roll of sticky tape, there, asking you to let her have a go, is Granny Malone!
Yes, Granny Malone! Pretty damn nasty, if you know what I mean.
"Stop! Stop!" Daddy Bear said. He leaned breathlessly against a wall. They were in a narrow alleyway that ran between the back gardens of two rows of houses.
Mary leaned over, hands resting on his knees, panting heavily. "Do you really think they were after us?" he asked.
"Maybe," Daddy Bear said. "Maybe not, but it's better to be safe than sorry."
"Yeah," Mary said with relish. "I suppose there's a price on our heads now. The police will have put out an APB, and sent helicopters and sniffer dogs after us. We're wanted men now."
"Yeah," Daddy Bear sneered. "Wanted, for nearly robbing a betting shop with a coffee table."
Mary nodded slowly. "Exactly," he said, failing to read the sarcasm in Daddy Bear's voice. "I guess I'm a pretty dangerous criminal now."
"Don't you mean pretty hopeless?" Daddy Bear corrected him. "Let's face it, you haven't actually done anything yet, have you? Your admittedly short career in crime has been remarkable for its stunning lack of success."
Mary was upset by this rebuke. "I've just tried to hold up a betting shop," he defended himself. "It takes a pretty dangerous hoodlum to do that sort of thing."
"You may as well have marched in there and said you were from Interflora, for all the good it did you," Daddy Bear said. "I sort of got the impression that they weren't taking us very seriously."
"But I beat up the owner's wife," Mary boasted proudly. "Now that's what I call vicious."
"But she asked you to beat her up," Daddy Bear argued. "She almost begged you. Anyway, you just held her down. I'm the one that hit her with the furniture."
"Okay, okay," Mary said quickly. "Just watch this then." He picked up a stray brick that was lying nearby and lobbed it through the downstairs window of an adjacent house. "Ha, see! I'm a dangerous criminal," he said proudly.
"No you're not," Daddy Bear told him. "You're a sad, middle-aged double glazing salesman with an extremely silly first name, who is so desperate to inject some sense of danger into his otherwise pitifully drab life that he is prepared to resort to mindless vandalism."
Mary snorted contemptuously, and would have delivered an extremely witty and cutting remark, were it not for the fact that he couldn't think of one. "I just broke a window," he said lamely. "That makes me a gangster."
"Does it?" said Daddy Bear. "Well tell me, Al Capone, which window did you break?"
"What?" Mary checked the house. It was a derelict. There was no door, half the roof was missing and Mary had thrown his brick through the only window that had been left intact.
"Pretty pathetic, aren't you?" Daddy Bear said. He heaved himself over the garden wall and began to march up to the back door of the house.
Mary followed him. "Wait for me," he said. "What are you doing?"
The back door was unlocked. Daddy Bear pushed it ajar and went inside. "The thing is," he said as he sniffed around the dark interior, "now that you're a dangerous criminal you're going to need somewhere to spend the night."
"Here?" Mary said.
"Of course," Daddy Bear replied as he led the way through into the passageway. In places the plaster had crumbled away; elsewhere it was only held on by strands of wallpaper. Daddy Bear ran his paw over a damp patch of brickwork. "Like you said, the police will be out looking for you. There will be an APB out on you, and sniffer dogs in helicopters."
"I see what you mean," Mary said.
"You have to think about the practicalities of day to day existence now," Daddy Bear told him. "Life on the run isn't going to be easy. Where will you sleep? What will you eat? What will you use for toilet paper? The everyday things that you take for granted are the things that you'll miss the most."
They went into the back room. It was against Mary's better instincts to venture any further into this dark pit, but as Daddy Bear seemed to know what he was doing Mary thought it wise to stick with him.
This room didn't seem as bad as the rest of the house. There were a couple of blankets on the floor: damp and soggy, with squadrons of bugs crawling all over them and, doubtless, further legions beneath. A number of crates and boxes provided them with makeshift furniture, scattered around the remains of a fire in the centre of the room.
There were other signs of recent habitation: empty food containers and an oil lamp, which despite being cleaned and polished every day had evidently not seen a drop of oil in ten years. Daddy Bear picked it up and examined it.
"We'll stay here for the night," he said.
"You what?" said Mary. "You must be joking."
"What were you expecting: five tennis courts and breakfast in bed in the morning?" Daddy Bear snapped. "I'm afraid that if your great ambition in life is to be a dangerous criminal, then you'll have to get used to roughing it a bit."
"It's just that I never counted on this," Mary said squeamishly. "I don't really fancy spending the night on a cold and damp floor. I might get botulism."
"You don't get botulism from being cold and damp. You get pneumonia."
"I don't much like the sound of that either."
"Why not?" asked Daddy Bear. "It's better than botulism."
Mary walked round in a broad circle, breathing deeply and staring solemnly at his feet. He stopped at what appeared to be an empty cardboard box and kicked it lazily. Three empty whisky bottles toppled over and rolled away in opposite directions. Mary waited until the last one had nudged up against the wall, then he spoke.
"Anyway, it's obvious that someone is living here already."
Daddy Bear nodded. "Then he'll have the choice of either welcoming his new lodgers with open arms, or moving to other premises," he said dispassionately. He started to go. "Stay here."
Mary looked up, alarmed at the prospect of being left alone. "Where are you going?"
"You want to eat, don't you?" Daddy Bear said grimly. "I won't be long."
The evening was rapidly drawing on. Daddy Bear had thirty-six pence in his pocket, and little hope of finding adequate sustenance for the two of them. Grizzly bears have huge appetites, and double-glazing salesmen have been known to devour whole herds of wildebeest in a single sitting. Nevertheless, Daddy Bear soon chanced upon a small corner shop, just off the main road. A dim yellow light shone from behind the fading posters that blocked the shop's narrow windows. Above the door, painted onto the brickwork itself, was the shadow of an ancient tobacco advertisement.
Daddy Bear smiled. He knew what to expect inside. The place would be warm and friendly. The shopkeeper would be a big, fat northern man who talked about the weather, or football, or anything that came to mind. After the things Daddy Bear had been through recently, it would be nice to be greeted by a friendly face. He couldn't remember the last time anyone had seemed pleased to see him.
The bell above the door tinkled softly as he entered. He found himself alone in the shop. Along the left hand side was a deep shelf stacked with rows of crusty bread, much of it a little too crusty. To his right was a large pyramid of baked bean tins, above which a handwritten notice informed him that baked beans were full of protein and vitamins, and happened to be on special offer that week.
An old fashioned counter spread itself along the rear wall. At one end a large slab of cheddar kept vigil with an air of majestic grandeur, despite being coated in a thick layer of dead flies. Around the room were tiers of dark shelves populated by hundreds of anonymous tins and packets.
The door behind the counter stood slightly ajar. Daddy Bear shuffled his feet and whistled softly to himself. No sign of the shopkeeper. He coughed loudly, but the shopkeeper remained conspicuous by his absence. Ah, it reminded him of his youth, before hypermarkets and drive-thru burger bars. The world had moved at a slower pace back in those halcyon days, people took their time and were all the better for it. All the same, Daddy Bear was becoming a little impatient and he started to drum his fingers restlessly on the counter.
"Hello!" he shouted into the back. "Any chance of getting served?"
Moments later the shopkeeper finally put in an appearance, and Daddy Bear was disappointed to see that he was far removed from the jolly stereotype that he was expecting. The man appeared to be in his mid-twenties. His hair was short and slicked back with gel, his eyebrows and moustache were neatly trimmed. He was wearing what was obviously an expensive business suit, which jarred terribly with the traditional baggy brown shop coat that he wore over the top.
"Good evening sir, and welcome to our humble establishment," he said coldly. "And how may I help you?"
"Ah well," Daddy Bear began, "the thing is I'm not really sure what I want."
"Not really sure, eh sir?" the shopkeeper said in a voice that was anything but friendly. "I see. So you came into this shop not really knowing if you want to buy anything, is that right? You were just passing, so you thought you'd pop in and stand around, not really wanting anything, just to annoy me?"
Daddy Bear smiled politely. "I suppose I'm being a bit of a pain?" he said, attempting to lighten the atmosphere.
"Yes you are," returned the shopkeeper bluntly.
Daddy Bear didn't know how to take this remark, so he let it pass. He scanned the shelves, trying to decipher the labels on the tins. "You see, the problem is that I haven't got much money."
"You haven't got much money?" the shopkeeper repeated.
"Yes," said Daddy Bear. "I haven't got much money, and I've got to feed two of us."
The shopkeeper thrust his hands deep into his coat pockets. "Well, I think I see your problem," he said thoughtfully. "Essentially what you're looking for is a high-fibre, high-protein foodstuff in the lower price region?"
"Yes," Daddy Bear said. "I expect I am. Have you got any tomato soup?"
"Actually, our baked beans are on offer at the moment sir," the shopkeeper was keen to point out. "I'd advise you to take advantage of this special promotion while stocks last."
"Well I quite like the idea of tomato soup, really," said Daddy Bear.
"I think you'll find that beans make a very good meal," the shopkeeper persisted. "Exceptionally good, in fact."
"Or chicken?" Daddy Bear asked. "Have you got any chicken soup? I'm quite partial to chicken soup."
"Of course, the advantage of beans at the moment is that they're only thirty pence a tin. Just thirty pence! That's two pence off the recommended retail price. Do you know how much that works out at per bean?"
"No," said Daddy Bear. "Do you?"
"No, but I can work it out for you." The shopkeeper pulled a calculator out of his pocket and began stabbing at the buttons furiously. "Now let's see. Let's assume there are, say, five hundred beans in a tin. So... hmm, ha! That's divided by... hmm, yes, so add the square root of... hmm and hmm. Subtract the number you first thought of and... Oh well, I'm sure it's a pretty impressive figure anyway."
He tossed the calculator onto the counter.
"Do you realise," the shopkeeper continued, "that one single bean contains one hundred and eighty-six thousand joules of energy? That's enough to keep a herd of elephants in the Amazon going for six months."
"There aren't any elephants in the Amazon," Daddy Bear said.
"Aren't there? Oh. Okay, look at this." The shopkeeper held up a multi-coloured bar chart. "This diagram shows the comparative nutrient contents of one baked bean set against other, higher price foodstuffs. You'll notice that the cornflake doesn't fare too well."
"Actually," Daddy Bear said, raising his voice above this insane babble, "all I want is a tin of soup! Either chicken or tomato, I don't mind which."
The shopkeeper stopped talking and looked at him curiously. "Soup?" he asked a moment later.
"Soup," Daddy Bear reaffirmed.
"No, not beans," said Daddy Bear. "Just soup."
"We haven't got any," said the shopkeeper. "You'll have to have beans."
"What do you mean you haven't got any? There's a whole shelf full of soup over there."
Daddy Bear spun around and pointed. "There look. Three rows of tins. They all say 'Cream of Chicken Soup' on the labels."
The shopkeeper suddenly appeared apologetic. "Ah well," he said, "just because it says 'Chicken Soup' on the label, it doesn't necessarily follow that there's chicken soup in the tin, now does it?"
"What?" said Daddy Bear. There was an uneasy silence.
Daddy Bear looked at the shelf.
He looked at the pile of beans.
He looked at the shopkeeper.
"Look, I've had quite enough of this," he said. "Are you going to sell me any soup, or not?"
The shopkeeper stared stoically back at him, his arms folded across his chest. "No," he said.
Daddy Bear shook his head, totally perplexed. "Why?" he asked. "Why on Earth won't you sell me a simple tin of chicken soup? Is it really too much to ask?"
The shopkeeper sighed. "You see, it's all to do with profit margins," he explained sympathetically. "I would dearly love to sell you a tin of soup, honestly I would. But I simply can't. I could elaborate on the reasons, but I fear you wouldn't understand."
"All right, I've had enough of this," said Daddy Bear. "As far as I'm concerned you can stick your soup, your beans and anything else that comes to hand where the sun don't shine."
He turned and headed for the door, but as his fingers touched the handle his empty stomach suddenly rumbled. No, he wasn't going to be beaten that easily! He turned back and stalked towards the shopkeeper.
"Okay," he said in a calm voice, "I'm listening. Explain to me why you can't sell me a tin of soup."
The shopkeeper flicked back the tails of his coat and stuck his hands in his trouser pockets. "Well, as I said, you may find it a little difficult to understand. Under normal circumstances the profit we make on a tin of soup and a tin of beans are about the same. Now, because of the current EEC bean surplus we are able to buy them at a much cheaper rate, hence the reduction in price to you, the customer. Nevertheless, at the same time we are also able to increase our profit margin, which means that in order to cover the initial outlay - "
"Shut up!" Daddy Bear shook his head as if something with sixteen legs had just crawled into his left ear. "I don't want to hear another word of this rubbish. I haven't eaten properly for... well, it seems like weeks. I would like a tin of chicken soup. I know I might be asking a little too much of you, but however foolish it might seem, I expect to be able to come in here and buy such an item without being lectured on the profitability of baked beans. Do I make myself clear?"
"Well I'm sorry," the shopkeeper replied haughtily, "but the fact of the matter is that it would be commercially unviable for me to sell you a tin of soup at this current time. You see, the optimum level of soup sales in any given month is proportional to - "
"I see, I see," Daddy Bear interrupted. "I wonder, would it be commercially viable for me to ram this French loaf down your throat at the current time?" He picked up the aforementioned foodstuff and waved it threateningly.
The shopkeeper took a step back and said that it depended on the scale on which such an operation was carried out.
"Now look, I'm not unreasonable," said Daddy Bear, not unreasonably. "So I'll give you a choice: either you sell me the soup, or I stick this loaf in your orifice. Now, may I please have a tin of chicken soup?"
The shopkeeper stared back resolutely. "No," he said, and he solemnly shook his head.
* * *
One and a half minutes later, Daddy Bear legged it from the shop with an armful of cream of chicken soup. Now he really was in trouble. What he had done to that shopkeeper had been terrible, and he shuddered when he thought about it. The poor man would never play the mouth organ again.
Racked by guilt he tore through the back streets and alleyways, finally stopping at a junction. Suddenly he realised that he was in an unfamiliar neighbourhood. In his haste to get away, he had taken a wrong turning and now he had no idea where he was.
He looked around and quickly made up his mind to go left, then two steps later he fell over a child's bike that had been left in the street. He pitched headlong to the ground and dropped the tins he was carrying. They bounced off the pavement and rolled into the gutter, which is precisely what Daddy Bear did himself a moment later.
He stood up, kicked the bike brutally, then picked up a few of the tins and ran on. He felt sure that the shopkeeper would have raised the alarm by now, and his most pressing concern was to get out of the area before the police arrived.
As it turned out the shopkeeper hadn't raised the alarm at all. This sort of thing happened to him all the time, and he just treated it as just one of the many unfortunate side effects of running a profitable business.
The house was in darkness by the time Daddy Bear found it. He trod carefully, feeling his way down the hallway. "Mary?" he called. "Are you still here?"
Ghostly candlelight flickered from the back room. He entered to find Mary huddled over a candle, and there was another man with him.
"What's going on?" Daddy Bear asked as he approached. The stranger looked up and fixed him with pale grey eyes. "Who are you?" Daddy Bear asked quietly.
The man said not a word. The candle cast eerie shadows across his face as it lit his skeletal features from below. He was a vision in black: a long canvass coat, dark jeans and a black frilly shirt. His hair was long and greasy, and he sported several days' growth of beard.
"This is Mr. Longtower," Mary said. "He lives here. Mr. Longtower, this is my friend Gordon Bear."
Longtower got to his feet, and with the four remaining teeth that he possessed he attempted to smile. "Please forgive my initial suspicion," he said cordially. "I feared you were the police. Delighted to meet you sir."
"Likewise," Daddy Bear said, as he rocked from side to side to avoid Longtower's halitosis.
"And I see you have brought provisions! Let me relieve you of those." Longtower took the tins from him and stuck them in his pockets. "I'm not too keen on chicken soup myself," he said. "I would have preferred baked beans, but never mind. Come and warm yourself by the fire."
"The fire?" Daddy Bear asked. He meant the candle. Daddy Bear consented and sat with his companions around the candle. There was a pause; a big hole in the world while someone thought of something to say. Daddy Bear noticed that the shadows on the wall seemed to be moving with a life of their own, so he tried not to look at them.
"Longtower is a philosopher," said Mary.
"Lovely," was Daddy Bear's reply. "The world needs more philosophers."
"I'm only really an amateur," said Longtower modestly.
"Wonderful," said Daddy Bear politely. "Even better."
"Trivialities and irrelevancies plague us," said Longtower. "Such is life. So I have dedicated myself to the contemplation of the broader aspects of existence."
"That's nice," said Daddy Bear.
"I think so," said Longtower. He took a bottle of Newcastle Brown from his pocket, prised off the top with his tooth and poured it down his throat. "So, you're dangerous criminals?" he asked, having drained the bottle.
"Not exactly," said Daddy Bear. "I myself am the victim of cruel circumstance. Mary here is just plain twisted."
Longtower wasn't listening. "Ah, the noble highwayman! For it is he who brings justice to our land. It his he who steals from the rich that which they have already stolen from the poor."
"No it isn't," Daddy Bear corrected him. "It is he who kills and maims rich and poor alike, purely to satisfy his own greed."
"We three noble villains!" Longtower nevertheless proclaimed. "We laugh in the face of the law, and pour scorn on their feeble attempts to imprison us. Unto the common folk of this land we are heroes! And do you know why, my fine fellows?"
"Why?" Mary asked eagerly. He was hanging on to every word.
"Because," And here Longtower paused and fixed them with his heady gaze... He paused quite a long time, in fact... No, even longer actually... He's still pausing... I should imagine he's just about finished pausing now... Well, this is quite a staggeringly long pause, isn't it? He must be about finished by now... Surely he can't -
"Because we are united!" he announced suddenly.
I'm sorry, he caught me out. I was expecting him to pause for a bit longer than that.
He stood up, his outstretched arms reaching towards the sky - or rather, towards the sagging plasterboard ceiling, which looked like it might shortly be joining the floor.
"We three brothers in crime; we three apostles of villainy, standing firm against a society which seeks to suppress us." He began to raise his voice. "For we are as slippery as the slimy eel, ha ha! For we are as crafty as the cunning old fox, no less! And we are as clever as," he paused, struggling to find the words. "We are as clever as... as a water buffalo. Especially one that is particularly clever. One that can do quadratic equations and knows about geography and stuff." His voice grew louder still. "One for all and all for one: that shall be our motto!"
"Yes, if you could just keep your voice down a bit," Daddy Bear asked him politely.
Longtower was on a roll. He found himself launching into a fit of poetry:
"Bravely we three adventurers ride Into trouble, against the tide. Fighting for things that we believe in, With little plastic boxes to keep our lunch in."
Mary applauded. Longtower looked faintly surprised with himself. "I just made that up," he said proudly.
"Oh please, just shut up," Daddy Bear said slowly.
"I beg your pardon?" Longtower replied in a hurt voice.
"I said shut up!" Daddy Bear repeated. He gathered together some blankets and started to make up a bed in the corner. "I've had a bad day, okay? No, I've had a bad week. My wife's left me, my son's an imbecile, and everywhere I go I'm surrounded by lunatics. I've had about as much as I can take, so the last thing I really need right now is a bleeding poet!"
Leaving his companions speechless, Daddy Bear settled down to sleep.