Devil’s trill. Chapter 1

It all started with a CD and an unfortunate piss-up. That was the first link in the chain of events that had brought Nick, eight years later, to Chugunkov.

Nick grew up in a wacky family. As the common wisdom has it, every family is wacky in its own way. Nick had a painter for a brother and a linguist / screenwriter for a sister. As a result, the siblings were in a permanent state of financial distress. During the nineties, all of them were supported, in one way or another, by their dad. The dad was an alcoholic, an engineer, an MG cars aficionado, and a small business owner. To each of those roles he devoted himself wholeheartedly, with the result that he passed away in 2000 – taken by a stroke that got him while he was changing the cambelt in his MGTF.

His young age, awkward appearance and cheap clothing meant that nobody was taking him seriously. In reality, our author did have a considerable listening skill. “The ears are the principal instrument of a spy” — he thought to himself.

It was then that the family myth had emerged about Nick’s predestination to be either a programmer, or an engineer, or a small business owner. That is to say, not a creative type – for the masters of penniless trades were in ample supply, but bread had to be won somehow. Nick had a kind of business talent. He was in high school when his dad passed away, and living with his mom whose financial sense was better described as a nonsense. Being dependent on that nonsense did not appeal to Nick; something had to be done.

His very first steps in that direction bore fruit. Nick was writing essays for his classmates. Some days, five of Nick’s essays got submitted to the same teacher. The price was determined by the mark. It was then that Nick discovered that it was not the work that was getting marked, but the personality of whoever produced it. Still, he was taking in around 50 pounds per essay that got submitted.

His second income source were girls. Or rather girls’ love of shiny pens and notebooks. Uddingston had a traditional books and crafts fair every fortnight on a Saturday – it was there that our hero was stocking up on Hello Kitty pens and rulers, and then peddling those to the girls at his school.

The third income source was miscellaneous printouts. Nick had a laser printer at home, not a common thing at the time. He used that printer to produce copies of past GCSE exams. His classmates told their parents a printout was twenty quid, Nick was printing them for ten. Everyone was getting a cut.

As a result of all those manoeuvres, Nick came into a small fortune of 500 pounds, a part of which he was lending out to his sister, and investing the other part further. One of his investments were CDs. He fell in love with music. Nick could spend hours listening to Paganini and Sting. The new wave of British rock, in the form of The Stone Roses and the rest of Madchester, washed over him too. But the real kick was coming from his namesake Paganini. It was good old Niccolo that inspired the next set of his business heroics.

The local CD salesman – a kindly alcoholic by the name of Craig – became friends with Nick. By an irony of fate, Craig was a crafts course teacher by education, and crafts was the only subject that Nick was having trouble with at school. As a result, he hated craftoes as a species, but he did get along with Craig – he was the only person that Nick had confided his love of music to. To the rest of his friends, our hero professed an undying love for Elton John and Madonna, to which in reality he was absolutely indifferent. And then, of course, he did know Billy Connolly off by heart – for such were the times, he had to know.

It was Craig that he could discuss all of that with while he was choosing his next CD and parting with ten or even twenty pounds. And so Craig asked him one day to replace him during his vacation. And so, at the age of fifteen, Nick made an acquaintance with the owner of a CD rental chain and started on his path to big money. He could earn between 30 and 40 pounds a day!

How old are you? — Pritpaul Singh, the owner of the chain, asked sternly.

Sixteen, — Nick promptly lied. He was actually fifteen, but he had been ghost-writing a few sociology essays recently and remembered some messy articles about child labour and the hassle of employing someone under the statutory age.

I can show you my passport, — our hero flashed the cover of his child passport and even put it on the table. But then stuffed it safely back into a pocket.

After that brief, and his first ever, job interview, Nick was hired. His job was to man a CD booth in a 24-hour supermarket, which meant that the booth could have been open 24 hours. The hours were determined by the person manning the till – Pritpaul Singh was paying his workers 10% of the turnaround and giving them complete liberty in matters relating to their work: what was to be stocked, how it was to be arranged in the shop windows, etc. Every other day or so, Pritpaul was passing by – to check the intake, hand the tithe over to the staffer and to leave some brown envelope money. Peddling pirated music, films and porn was not entirely legal, and so payments had to be made, and so Pritpaul was duly making the payments; Nick was passing those on.

After Nick’s first day at the job, Pritpaul couldn’t balance the books. Nick was very upset about the matter and spent two hours figuring out where a whole £150 had gone. He then realised it was a calculation error and explained the shortfall, demonstrating a certain mathematical talent in the process. He was very careful with financial reporting after that, particularly so with a simple notebook that he was recording his sales in.

It was in that same job that Nick decided to try some techniques from the NLP books that were littering his flat. He was practicing mirroring and matching on his customers: you must first match a person’s appearance and behaviour, and then you can lead them by giving desirable suggestions that lead to better sales and larger turnaround. Our hero really got into the process. He had to start throwing his trainers away every week — that was the only thing one could do with the footwear soaked in sweat to that kind of extent. That was the sweat of a true salesman. Nick had no knowledge of the product he was selling. He had no time to listen to the latest pop or watch blockbusters. But Nick knew his clients. He knew them inside and out. From teenagers hiding their money in shoes — so they don’t get mugged — and buying video games and house disco that was fashionable at the time, all the way to old grannies shopping for presents for their grandchildren. But none of those made his profits. The profits came from families.

Every evening, at about 5 pm, a small queue was forming in the supermarket. Fathers were coming back from work and taking their wives and children shopping. They were buying food and getting something to watch. Grotesque pudgy men, shrieking women and hyperactive children were making Nick a small fortune. The principal task consisted in serving five families at the same time. The trick was to initiate conversations within the queue.

Got a comedy or something?

Actually, the gentleman right behind you took “Father Ted” last time, did you like it, sir? — Nick was becoming the discussion moderator for the queue.

Having taken in 1500 pounds in one day, Nick became the best salesman that Pritpaul ever had. Singh did not hesitate in his praise for Nick – he was allowed to play classical music in his booth, notwithstanding the grumbles from the security, the cashiers and the rest of the supermarket plankton. Our hero refreshed his wardrobe, was buying rounds for his friends, got an entertainment centre and updated his PC.

That idyllic career was destined for a tragic end right there and then. Nick was about to finish school when he got invited to a piss-up by his friend Millie. Millie was a first year sociology student at Glasgow Polytechnic, and the piss-up was for her friend Vicky who was doing media studies. Vicky was hot and Nick was very keen on fucking her, and so he proceeded to get her drunk. They were drinking till dawn. He did not fuck her, but she did fuck up his brain.

Nick, what are you applying for? Electronic engineering? Why? You are not made for that stuff. You must apply for media studies, where I am, there you can drink to your heart’s content. — Vicky opined as the sun was rising. Nick considered the proposition dubious – the future electronic engineers were drinking way harder than the media folks, but Vicky did have a kind of alien logic there. At around the same time, Nick had watched “The Parallax View”, which portrayed journalism as a fast and dangerous life with expensive cars, hot girls, and the looks of a world-weary alcoholic. Nick was taken in by the image. Who wouldn’t have been? Anyway, Vicky’s suggestion fell on a soil fertilised by the shitty film, and proceeded to bloom into the desire to look like the film’s protagonist – and be a journalist.

The relatives fought the hardest. Nick mother barely survived the impact. The teachers at Nick’s school insisted that our hero would simply not make the A-levels required for a degree in journalism at the University of Strathclyde which had a notable position not only in Scotland, but the rest of the UK to some extent. A dozen applicants for each place!

The CD booth owner took the news stoically. He and Nick were on a trip to the pirates to stock up on tapes and CDs. Nick decided to stock up his own shelf too. When a sports bag was full and our hero was reaching for his wallet, Pritpaul stopped him:

That’s a present for you. I am sorry to see you leaving. We could have made such a business together. If you hit a patch, do come back, we’ll be waiting — that was a lot of words for Pritpaul to utter in one go, but that did not stop Nick. He wanted action, just like that journalist from the film. He wanted to fly out of the cage and feel the freedom. The freedom he did end up feeling was from money.

What is this? — Nick got his first writer’s honorarium for the articles he had written for a student newspaper. He spent an entire month writing them and they made a splash. The Tongs were promising to beat him up for what he had written about them, and another piece about hiking in the Highlands attracted a lot of positive feedback. Overall, that was a success, albeit not of a financial nature.

This is your honorarium, — said Tim, the editor, about the 299 pounds that the envelope contained. “That is not an honorarium” — Nick wanted to say. That was a mockery of the noble ideal created by Hollywood. He took the money quietly and drove off to a date with his sociology girlfriend.

The dream of financial security did not leave him, however. He tried to write more to earn more. He was freelancing for five different magazines and literally filled them with his work. But that did not translate into any appreciable increase in the earnings. After a year of working his knuckles to the bone he was barely making the amount that was a lemon squeezy back at the CD booth.

Nick wasn’t looking too good either. It turned out that living with a girlfriend meant supplying her with gifts, accommodation, clothing and food. At the start of their relationship she was quite happy with an occasional rose (2 pounds each), a bottle of Tesco vodka (7 pounds), a pack of condoms (4 pounds a dozen) and a rented room (200 pounds a month). In the middle of it, he had to rent a flat (650 pounds), take her out on dinner dates with good wines (60 pounds), et cetera. The endless work, the study and the daily sex were wearing him out. He just about kept going.

It was at that point that he came across Conor McIntosh, who was an associate dean at Strathclyde. The story of their friendship was peculiar. Among the magazines Nick had been working for was a newspaper, owned by a local media mogul by the name of Borthwick with a hostile policy to the current vice-Chancellor. Borthwick was a funny character: in Glasgow, he tried living the high life of Taki Theodoracopulos from The Spectator. He did actually look a bit like Taki. In his efforts to maintain the pretence, he was keen on the various fashions of the time – he was a vegan, did not smoke and was driving a Bentley. He was also running an opposition university newspaper.

The newspaper was a broadsheet by the name of “Learn and Teach” abbreviated by the locals into “Leech”. It had 12 columns, of which two were blocked off by some boring literary critic who nobody ever saw in the office and who was restewing books and films. The rest of the space was Nick’s for the taking. First he took over the news columns. That’s how his frenemy relationship with the associate dean had begun.

Word got round in October that McIntosh was evicting Paul Longbottom from the student accommodation. With wife and kids! Without due process or procedure. And accommodating some toffy girls in his place. Our author was promptly supplied with Paul’s telephone number. Paul did live up to his surname — he was an accomplished pisshead. At one point he had received a first class degree in history. He then went to do a masters in philosophy and ended up an alcoholic. Paul offered his hip flask to our author.

— Erm, no, thanks, — the author hesitated for a moment. He didn’t mind the time of the day (it was noon), he had had an early drink on occasion. Nor did he have anything against the drink — a mixture of vodka and port, he was no stranger to that either. He had a problem with the company. He did not want to fall as low as this Paul he saw in front of him. He feared that the act of drinking from that flask would turn him instantly into another Paul.

Longbottom’s drunken and muddled narrative did not appeal to Nick. Longbottom had been living with his pregnant wife in a tiny room in a student accommodation block. He got kicked out by McIntosh and that was it. Nick would have kicked him out too, from wherever. But Nick was out for some cash. He put together a slick half-column about student accommodation being offered to whoever pays the most and was sitting and waiting for his honorarium. On the day the article came out Nick was a bit anxious. He was always getting anxious when his articles were coming out – it was usually the day when the heroes of his publications were starting to search for him. The libel in the “Leech” was from a pseudonym, but that did not help. The hysterical copyeditor by the name of Chantelle snitched to McIntosh on the author and his whereabouts with an astonishing expediency.

Nick was sitting in McIntosh’s anteroom in the company of his long-legged secretary. That is how his friendship with McIntosh started – he offered Nick some tea and biscuits, told him off and asked if they could have more frequent meetings. A year later McIntosh was kicked out of the university for physical assault on a Health and Safety officer. Nick was the only one who wrote a profoundly sympathetic commentary on the subject, having previously been mud-slinging in the same general direction for about a year. That was when their friendship and collaboration got going.

McIntosh found a job at an outfit controlled by the Tongs that was doing anything it could get its grubby mitts on: from building a new wing for the university, to buying up local land, to agriculture. Nick’s task was to pose as a young journalist and collect dirty laundry on anyone who was standing in the way of those activities. That was the first time that the factors previously working against Nick’s financial success started working for him. His young age, awkward appearance and cheap clothing meant that nobody was taking him seriously. In reality, our author did have a considerable listening skill. “The ears are the principal instrument of a spy” — he thought to himself. People were telling him things, and he was memorising them and writing them down. After a year of that intelligence work, Nick was easily picking up the tab at the local Weatherspoon’s where he was having time off with the gang he had got together to work on McIntosh’s assignments, and the friends who joined in. 

The atmosphere of success stayed on for another year. His earnings were going up. The sociology girlfriend was dumped. Nick got a taste for wild parties and sex with girls he barely knew, suffering all the while form an unrequited love. The Unrequited got tired one day of Nick’s fruitless venerations and said “fine, let’s go get a room”. The party was at Nick’s friend’s country house. Nick was so shaken by the requital that he went downstairs to have a shot of whisky. A shot quickly turned into a pint, and Nick, in his shaken state, ended up shagging some random lass he was having that drink with. That lass he kept fucking on and off for another year, thereby becoming her unrequited love.

The circle closed. Nick lost his Unrequited and dropped out of their university due to the sheer magnitude of his suffering and distress. He dumped McIntosh too, who either got murdered six months later, or committed suicide, but that had nothing to do with Nick. Some strange story, dark an uninteresting to our hero. He entered a new stage of his life. His old friend Millie was again responsible.

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