It turns out that Ken’s murky past is far more disturbing—and bizarre—than anyone could ever have imagined...
"Miss" Kiera reveals (almost) all
ALMOST THERE | ISSUE EIGHT
I was sitting in the Abstract Expressionist Arms one evening desperately trying to drown my sorrows. I was completely at a loss. My old friend Alan’s disturbing revelations about the mysterious figure known only as ‘Ken,’ and his involvement in the seedy world of Cold War espionage had been helpful, but since then my investigations had all but ground to a halt. I was trying to work out my next move when my train of thoughts were interrupted by an urgent whisper:
‘Pssst! Over here!’
I looked round but could see no-one.
‘No! Over here!’ hissed the voice with even greater urgency. An arm extended slowly out of the shadowy doorway leading
to the snug. The snug is, as everyone knows, the Abstract Expressionist Arms’ inner sanctum, the holy of holies only the pub’s most favoured habitués are allowed to enter. A finger beckoned. Of course I knew I shouldn’t, but there was nothing else for it, so in I went…
(during her time as a driving instructor in Upper Volta)
I found the arm (and, happily, also the finger) belonged to none other than “Miss” Kiera Chapman. “Miss” Kiera is well-known round these parts as ‘a bit of a character’. Her strange tales, about the even stranger ways she used to earn a living in some of the most far-flung corners of the globe, were legendary. As was her gargantuan capacity for alcohol.
She looked me up and down and got straight to the point:
‘I hear you might be in the market for info on a character called Ken.’
‘In that case I reckon I’ve got something you’re going find interesting,’ she added mysteriously.
I got the drinks in while “Miss” Kiera checked the room for eavesdroppers. Once we were comfortably
ensconced my companion poured herself a large one and proceeded to tell me a story that was to make my blood run cold...
‘I spent most of my seafaring days in the Dutch East Indies,’ she began. ‘At the time in question I was doing a stint as a grease monkey on a tramp steamer, the S.S. How’s-Yer-Father? Well, I remember one time, late summer it was, we were
WInky's in its heyday.
A couple of weeks later it was closed down by the
docked in Penang waiting to ship cargo. I was at a loose end, I was due some shore leave, so what was I gonna do? I was gonna hit Winky’s Bar, that’s what!’
‘Winky’s Bar?’ I laughed.
‘Don’t let the name fool you,’ she snapped. ‘Winky’s was the roughest, toughest gin joint you’d find anywhere between the Straits of Malacca and the Celebes Sea. And believe me, I’ve looked!’
“Miss” Kiera poured herself another drink, then continued:
‘Yeah- back then Winky’s was a notorious haunt for all manner of cut-throats and ruffians- pirates from the South China Sea, gun-runners from Sumatra, rum smugglers, opium peddlers, slave traders, bush-whackers, head hunters, grave robbers, PPI salesmen…’ She chuckled. ‘Even that old rascal “Big” Jim Colquhoun used to ship up from time to time.’
I chuckled too, just to be sociable, but I immediately wished I hadn’t because “Miss” Kiera glared at me furiously and slammed her fist down on the table so hard it made the glasses jump.
‘I know what you’re thinking,’ she snarled. ‘But let me tell you – not one of those rumours about me and “Big” Jim was ever substantiated!’
Notorious budgie smuggler “Big” Jim Colquhoun
I didn’t have a clue what “Miss” Kiera was on about, but clearly I’d touched a very raw nerve.
‘Anyway,’ she continued, eyeing me suspiciously, ‘I got to Winky’s a little after sundown. I’d just had my first Riccadonna of the evening when I happened to clap eyes on a former shipmate of mine, a grizzled old sea dog with a wooden leg called Maltese Joe.’ For a moment she looked puzzled. ‘Funny, he never said what the other leg was called... Anyway, after the regulation sea shanties and a fair few bevies we got to spinning yarns. One of the tales Joe told me that night will haunt me till the day I die.’
My ears pricked up in anticipation. At last we were getting somewhere!
‘It happened in the days when Joe was working for a Black Sea shipping line out of Istanbul. One time they were unloading a cargo of Old Spice in the port of Odessa—it was back in the days of the old Soviet Union—and for once the crew were allowed on shore. Eschewing the more traditional pleasures sought by his shipmates, Joe wandered off alone, hoping to slake his thirst for culture. To cut a long story short he wound up in a seedy back-street opera house watching some mediocre ballet troupe murder one of the classics. The Nutcracker, apparently.’ “Miss” Kiera smiled. A sad, wistful smile. ‘Tragically ironic as it turned out,’ she added quietly.
She poured herself another milk stout and sank it in one. For a posh girl she could certainly put ’em away!
‘Maltese Joe couldn’t believe his eyes,’ she continued,
‘because there, centre stage amid the tutus and tights, was none other than your mate Ken! He was still using his stage name in those days, but it was him alright.’
‘His stage name!?’ I blurted out in astonishment.
‘Ethel Sugden. Anyway, the performance was reaching its climax. Ken was attempting a particularly difficult arabesque pliée, when suddenly something went snap. The crowd gasped, the lights went out and poor Ken was rushed to hospital. But it was too late– the doctors said he’d never dance again.’
(shortly after the accident)
“Miss” Kiera fell silent. She stared into her empty glass as if the answer to whatever it was that troubled her lay somewhere at the bottom.
‘Well, there’s not much more to add. After that night I never saw Maltese Joe again. I did hear he ended his days playing the organ in a Working Men’s Club down Nuneaton way, but that’s probably just one of those rumours. As for me, after a series of unlikely adventures I wound up in Mandalay, flying Dakotas over the Himalayas into Red China. But that’s another story.’
She stood up.
‘Well I’d better be off. That driveway isn’t going to flag itself...’
She headed towards the exit, but suddenly halted as if troubled by one final thought. Then she turned towards the barman and called out with a force that shook the entire room:
‘Garçon! Une Stella Artois fort, s’il vous plaît!’
And with that she was gone, leaving me with more questions than answers. True, I now knew why Ken could suddenly, seemingly at will, break into a beautiful falsetto. And why he occasionally walked with a limp. But why did he burst into tears whenever Gardeners’ World came on TV? What was behind his morbid fixation with ketchup? And most worryingly of all, where did the sinister ‘Poker’ Pemberton fit into all this?