It's happened again. The muse, that minx, has interrupted my writing and rewriting of upcoming Cranford, Persuasion, and A2A chapters and stories to bring you this little offering, the idea for which came to me on a very wet Tuesday afternoon in the middle of Nuclear Security Summit-gridlocked Washington, D.C. I simply refused to watch any episode beyond the second of series 3 until I could finish my rewrites.
At times the characters and their back stories, or what I imagined were their back stories, took over the narrative. I struggled miserably with the tone and content of the following, and, as always, would welcome your comments, questions, and reviews.
First, the customary disclaimer: I do not own Alex Drake, Gene Hunt, Luigi, Ray Carling, any and all figures connected with Ashes to Ashes, or the song lyrics quoted. No copyright infringement is intended.
Dedicated to the late Meinhardt Raabe, for reasons that will become clear.
"You don't fool me... All Englishmen, in the art of seduction, are pathetic. No passion." Luigi to Gene, Ashes to Ashes, series 1, episode 6
A Lot of That Going Around
Chapter 1: The Symptoms
Oh. Oh. She hadn't expected it to be like this.
Of course she had acted purely on a whim, with no contemplation of the consequences, or of the past. In fact she had blissfully shed all her inhibitions and burdens, from endless paperwork to looming dark thoughts to the lingering notion that she might try to raise the Guv's pulse a bit, and had simply gone ahead and done what she wanted.
And now, standing before the mirror in her flat, Alex realized she had been right. This was a minor triumph. No, make that a major triumph. She looked amazing.
She ran her fingers over the bodice, designed to wrap round the curves of her upper body, accentuated by a deep V neckline, cut just low enough to be provocative but still ladylike. The skirt slid gracefully over her hips and finished in a swirl just past the tops of her boots. Of course the boots made it all look just a touch Bohemian, perhaps, but the dress was so flattering, and so very feminine, that Alex couldn't resist doing a little pirouette in front of her mirror.
"Just what the doctor ordered," she murmured, studying her reflection.
The doctor. She had to smile at that. He would notice she was a woman, even if Gene Hunt had started looking elsewhere for his harem.
Perhaps it was a bit unfair of her to associate the Gene Genie with harems. Firstly, the Guv was not exactly collecting concubines, and secondly, he hadn't entirely escaped the evolutionary process, if his treatment of Shazzer was any indication. Over time she'd risen in his estimation -- from "lobotomized Essex girl" to smart little plod, then to candidate for CID. It was definitely progress.
Of course Gene Hunt was still Neanderthal in other respects, but not without a degree of old-fashioned, and rather disarming, honor. He hadn't, for instance, let that rapacious brunette at the speed-dating session penetrate his armor -- to his credit, Alex thought. It really wasn't all about the sex.
But then Elaine Downing had made her move, and everything had changed. Apparently Gene's wish list -- "maid in the living room, cook in the kitchen, whore in the bedroom" -- hadn't put her off; in fact, quite the reverse. Alex was still trying to erase from her brain the image of the blonde in full frontal liplock with him at Luigi's, and had pretended not to notice when, back at Fenchurch East, Gene sometimes pulled out the Crescent Moon Dating Service card and studied it, as though looking for clues.
And he hadn't stopped with just examining Elaine's business card. No, Gene had actually phoned the predatory cow, who made good on her threat of a date. Gratis, of course. Ray had been certain to tell Chris all about it when Alex was in earshot.
A real mate, Ray.
Not long after Gene had begun squiring Yente the Matchmaker around town, Alex found a prospect of her own, most unexpectedly, right at the Met, and in the Coroner's Office, of all places.
He was one of the younger pathologists, even if he did already have a touch of grey in his hair. It suited him, though, and so did his sense of humor, no doubt an occupational necessity. And his very name had been a conversation-starter –- James Coburn.
"Like the actor?" had been the first words out of Gene's mouth. "The Magnificent Seven? The Great Escape? In Like Flint?"
"Guilty as charged," James had said, with a self-deprecating smile. "No relation, of course."
"A pity, that," Gene had said before turning away.
Then James had exchanged a look, and a very different smile, with Alex. She had felt the frisson between them, and was unsurprised when, about a week later, he employed one pretense or other to stop by Fenchurch East.
He had walked in just as Chris had tossed something into the rubbish bin with a clang, and James, without missing a beat, intoned, "Bring out your dead," in a spot-on Eric Idle impression. After Alex had stopped laughing she'd introduced James round, and been particularly pleased with the way he'd treated Shazzer -- as a colleague, and without so much as the suggestion of condescension. Truth to tell, it made a nice change to have another man about who didn't actually drag his knuckles along the ground.
Not long afterwards James had called Alex, and she'd agreed to meet him the following Saturday afternoon. She didn't mention it to the Guv, of course, but still he got wind of it, and gave her his own inimitable blessing.
"Good luck to you, Bolls. Mind you, can't say he'll know what to do with a bird who's still got a pulse."
On Saturday Alex felt confident, light-hearted, as she ran down the stairs. She looked wonderful, she was ready to have fun, and she was meeting a man who could string two sentences together and make her laugh -- an astonishing prospect, enough to make her giddy.
The plan was to take in the Peter Blake retrospective at the Tate, then go out for a walk -- it was a beautiful day -- and see if an adventure overtook them.
At least that had been the plan.
Alex had reminded herself not to say Tate Britain, assuming that blurting out the wrong name might be the only awkwardness to present itself that afternoon. But it was going into the Tate itself that proved surprisingly difficult, for when Alex arrived at the entrance, she had a sudden memory of Mum walking alongside her into the gallery, and could feel the pressure of her hand, hear the sound of her voice.
We'll go for ice cream afterwards. Would you like that?
"Alex. Alex, are you all right?"
"What? No -- no, I'm fine." She had shuddered, as though with cold. "It's just been a long time. And I've been looking forward to this," she added unnecessarily.
"Good. Shall we --"
Alex was seized by an impulse to take James's arm, though somehow it seemed the wrong moment, and he seemed the wrong man, for such a gesture. What could she say, after all -- Hold my hand; I'm missing my mum? Still, maybe he wasn't the wrong man; he seemed the sensitive type -- modern enough, at least for the 1980s -- and his company might prove refreshing, perhaps even healing.
That what was she told herself as they proceeded onwards. But she did not take his arm.
She'd felt such ease in his presence -- at Fenchurch East, even at the Coroner's Office -- but all of that melted away once they were apart from colleagues and left to themselves. In fact their entire visit to the Tate seemed to consist of circling about each other, speaking in non sequiturs, coming up against uncomfortable silences.
We'll go for ice cream afterwards. Would you like that?
"What? I'm sorry. I didn't hear what you just said."
"I was only suggesting that you might like a cup of tea -- or coffee, perhaps. I know a place that has the most amazing gateaux --"
"Right. Coffee. If you'd like." She would keep an open mind, draw him out, get him talking -- a reasonable plan, it seemed.
She did not stop to think she might want him to listen to her.
An hour or so later, Alex was suffering the effects of a too generous infusion of caffeine and the tedium of nonstop nodding and smiling. James had gone on at some length about his life, his work, his interests, his family, and not so much as asked a question of her, aside from ascertaining whether she'd like tarte tatin or Black Forest gateau with her coffee.
No, that was unfair. Once he had asked about her family. It had been when they were emerging from the Tate, and Alex had again thought of Mum, how she'd loved the place, loved taking Alex there -- in fact, to any museum. Rather wistfully Alex had mentioned as much to James, and he'd asked if her mother had died.
But when Alex had said yes, he hadn't pursued the subject further. In fact, she couldn't remember if he'd even made a response of any kind -- I'm sorry, I'm so sorry. Decent people said things like that. Maybe you stopped caring if all you saw were dead people.
No, she was being unfair, terribly unfair. Death in the family wasn't exactly the stuff of first-rate first-date conversation, even if you were a pathologist.
After two cups of excellent coffee, a prolonged but unconsummated flirtation with a chocolate gateau that seemed to be calling her name, and a verbal CV from James -- covering everything between conception and career advancement, she thought snottily -- Alex was in the midst of a caffeine buzz and a raging internal point-counterpoint dialogue.
He was the nicest, most intelligent man she'd met in a great while. He wasn't even good company, not really, not the way this day was turning out.
Maybe he was only nervous. Maybe he was only a self-absorbed wanker.
He obviously liked and respected her. He obviously wanted to get into her knickers.
Maybe she had been glued to everyone in CID too long and was flummoxed by the presence of a bona fide evolved man. Maybe the Guv was right; James had spent too much time performing postmortems and didn't know what to do with a living, breathing woman.
Maybe she should wait and see how a second date went. Maybe she should jump in a taxi, alone, then go out and get thoroughly pissed.
In the end there was a taxi, only it wasn't coming for her, just swerving past them. The rain had begun to fall while they were having coffee, and they'd come outside to find puddles everywhere -- first the one that Alex had stepped into in her beautiful boots, and then another, right in path of the taxi, which had produced a splash, leaving her almost completely soaked.
James emerged none the worse for wear from the whole business -- in fact he only looked charmingly windswept -- and was kind enough not to make any rude remarks at the unpleasant noises Alex's boots were making with each step she took, or to leer at the way her lovely and now very damp blue dress was clinging to her body. Instead he had rather gallantly led Alex to shelter beneath an awning.
Once there, though, he suddenly turned to her and brushed the damp hair from her forehead and, before Alex knew it, brought his face within inches of hers. In another lifetime it might have seemed an incredibly romantic gesture, but just then it seemed wrong -- incredibly, horribly wrong -- that he was about to kiss her.
She wasn't meant to feel lonely, not when he was touching her.
"I'm sorry." She heard herself laugh. "Sorry. I was just -- I mean, I wasn't ready -- I'm sorry." She laughed again.
He drew back a little, smiled. "Sorry. Should have given you fair warning.
"Well, shall we be getting back?" he added, briskly, before stepping out from under the awning to hail yet another passing taxi.
Well, that was that, thought Alex. Just as well, though. We weren't going anywhere, not really. She stepped out into the rain once again. James was again smiling at her, reaching out to take her hand -- firmly, but tenderly -- helping her inside the taxi, sliding in next to her.
Oh, my God. He'd entirely misunderstood what she'd meant, that she wasn't just embarrassed or shy or caught off-guard. Still, what could she say to him now? I'm sorry; you've got it all wrong. I have absolutely no intention of shagging you, this afternoon or in the foreseeable future? A bit cold, that. That is not what I meant at all? Dear God, she was quoting Eliot to herself. A fat lot of good that was going to do when she had to think of something she might say aloud.
Over James's protestations, Alex insisted that her clothing was nearly dry, that she didn't need to run up to her flat to change. She had put the dress on for his sake, but she wasn't about to let him upstairs and give him the chance to take it off her. That, in fact, would be a double opportunity -- to establish his credentials as a nice, helpful bloke and get into her knickers. No way, Jose. Or Diego, in this case.
Best to keep this on neutral turf, namely safely downstairs at Luigi's, where they'd have a nice, civilized glass of wine -- at her suggestion, of course -- and then she'd mutter some rubbish about how much fun they'd had and how they'd have to do it again, and then she'd send him on his way.
That had been the plan, but Alex had not counted on Luigi's reaction when she walked into the restaurant with James. For a moment she thought she saw sorrow, even disappointment, cross the Italian's face, but within moments he had assumed his customary demeanor and was beaming at both of them, and whisking them towards a cozy little corner.
Of course James was equally pleasant to Luigi -- he would be bloody nice to everyone, wouldn't he? -- and before Alex knew what was happening, he'd gone beyond ordering wine and requested a starter, and then insisted on ordering one for her as well.
And Luigi -- dear, matchmaking Luigi, who had always watched over her like a guardian angel -- proved oblivious to all of Alex's meaningful gazes and subtle head-shaking as he fluttered around them, bringing starters, then a basket of bread, then lasagna with a rich bechamel sauce.
And wine. He brought them a good deal of wine.
Luigi had gone off again, for yet another delicacy, leaving Alex clinging to the stem of her wineglass with a death grip and maintaining an expression she prayed didn't savor too much of boredom. In her peripheral vision she saw Ray walk in, a rather fruity brunette more or less surgically attached to him. It was in fact the same woman who could not be pried from the Guv's table throughout the speed-dating event.
They settled themselves into one of Luigi's dimmer corners, where the brunette promptly snaked her hand under the table, to accomplish God knew what with Raymondo. Well, there was a lot of that going around.
Meanwhile Alex was finally giving up the effort to appear interested in what James was saying -- she'd mentioned her time in Virginia, and somehow opened the floodgates for him to reveal his every last thought on the Reagan administration in general and the CIA in particular -- and had taken advantage of the distraction to cast the occasional glance at at the door, the better to monitor new arrivals and, when her line of focus grew careless, Ray and his date. Oh, that woman was simply unbelievable. Alex wondered if Luigi would call the police, or if he would remember that Ray was the police, and call it even.
Still, the very sight of Ray gave her an idea, and as soon as the brunette had vanished into the ladies', and James had paused for breath, Alex excused herself to say hello to a colleague, and moved as rapidly across the room as the sodden boots would allow. All at once she was seized by a particularly insane thought of vaulting right into Ray's lap -- that would really put paid to any misguided hopes James had -- but she didn't want to show him up, or mislead Ray, or risk the wrath of the brunette. Bloody woman wouldn't take well to competition -- although, for all Alex knew, she could be scouting for additional victims outside the gents'.
"Ray. How are you keeping?"
"Never better," he said, winking.
"This place -- it keeps drawing us like moths to the flame. Speaking of which, Ray, have you seen the Guv tonight?"
"I don't think anyone's going to see the Guv tonight. At least not standing up." No one in CID could match Ray in a meaningful leer. "Needed an early night."
"Yeah. Won't see him again for the rest of the weekend, I reckon."
Alex forced herself to smile, though she actually felt like crying.
"Looks like you done all right for yourself and all," said Ray, nodding towards James.
"Oh, he's just a friend. Listen, Ray, if you should -- "
But his attention had been drawn to the other side of the room, and Alex could guess, from his expression of lewd anticipation, that the brunette was arriving for the second course.
He tore his eyes away long enough to look back up at Alex. "I think I'll make an early night of it meself," he said, with another meaningful smile. "Lot of that going around."
"It's a global pandemic, apparently," said Alex dryly, before turning on her heel. She was not about to hang about for introductions.
"The marinated mushrooms -- they were satisfactory, signor?"
"Utterly delicious," said James warmly. He cast a glance at Alex, who chimed in, "They do the most wonderful things with sauces here."
"That is very kind of you, Signorina Drake. And may I say you look wonderful tonight. Radiant."
"Thank you, Luigi. Of course I've been marinated a bit myself -- in the very finest English rain." And subsequently pickled in your best red.
Luigi laughed politely. "Shall I bring you anything else? Some cappuccino, perhaps --"
"No!" Alex was horrified at the shrillness of her voice, and how both Luigi and James flinched at the noise. She spoke again, more softly, and with a considerable effort. "I only meant that the wine's lovely." She lifted her glass again, as though in salute.
"Perhaps in a few minutes," said James to Luigi, sotto voce.
"Buono." And with that Luigi discreetly vanished.
James turned back to Alex with a smile. "What a nice bloke."
"And he's right, you know."
"You do look radiant."
"Must be all that exercise," said Alex, half into her wineglass. "And rain."
"I mean it. You look beautiful, Alex."
"I did want today to be special."
"It was. It is." James made a move to clasp her hand again, but Alex was already leaning her chin against that same hand, and studying her wineglass critically.
"Got a new dress for it. Looked really nice."
"I noticed that."
"You would, wouldn't you?" said Alex. "You're trained to notice things." She set down her glass and began to sing a wobbly, raspy voice.
"As coroner, I must aver, I thoroughly examined her!"
"What the bloody hell was that?"
"The Wizard of Oz. The Munchkin song," giggled Alex, picking up her wineglass again. "No, I tell a lie," she said, with mock seriousness. "It's a Munchkin song. The song of the Munchkin coroner." She squinted at him. "Are you a Munchkin coroner, James? Hang about, that can't be. Too tall for it. You'd never get past the casting director." Again she dissolved into giggles.
Across the room Shazzer was arriving with a couple of her girlfriends, and she waved at Alex but did not come over. James looked over his shoulder, caught Shaz's eye, and she waved back at him too, and smiled, a curiously sad smile.
The very sight of Shazzer somehow left Alex feeling strangely lonely. Was it even possible to be lonely in a room full of people?
"Are you all right?" James's voice seemed to come from a great distance away, though at the same moment Colin Hay was fairly shouting through the speakers – no, directly into Alex's brain --
Do you come from a land down under
Where beer does flow and men chunder?
"Excuse me." She rose precipitately from the table and bolted for the ladies', only getting through the door, and to the sink, just in time.
It seemed an age before she stopped retching and was able to stand upright again. She looked in the mirror, at her ghostly face, her smudged eye makeup, the damp wisps of hair on her forehead.
"Oh, my God." She switched on the tap and began rinsing the sink and, mercifully enough, had made some progress before someone opened the door of the ladies'.
It was Shazzer. "Are you all right, ma'am?"
"Fine." Alex drew a breath. "Just a bit of a dodgy stomach," she added, and began tidying up around the sink.
"You must have eaten something that had gone off. I'll tell Luigi --"
"No!" Alex was unable to avoid a note of panic, and winced at the volume of her own voice. "No, that won't be necessary, Shaz." She didn't want to hurt Luigi's custom on top of everything else. "And it wasn't the food anyway."
"Maybe you've got that virus that's going round," said Shaz, genuinely sympathetic. "Chris had it a while back, and Ray too."
"I'll be fine," said Alex in a businesslike fashion, washing her hands, then turning to the mirror again to repair her makeup. She still looked very pale, but almost presentable enough to show her face in the dining room.
Presently Shazzer emerged from one of the stalls and came to the sink to wash her hands just as Alex was brushing her disheveled hair back into place.
" -- I know you're feeling poorly and all, but you look gorgeous."
"No, you do. Really."
"It's a beautiful dress," she said, turning off the tap. "Wish I could wear something like that."
"Well, it was a special occasion." Emphasis on the was.
"Are you going to be all right, ma'am? Do you need something?"
"I'm fine, Shaz. I'll be fine."
"All right then. Well, I'd best be getting back to my friends." But Shazzer didn't move, and Alex was lucid enough to know what was coming next.
"You haven't seen Chris tonight, have you?"
"Chris? No, no. He wasn't here when James and I sat down. Ray came in, though."
"Yeah. He's already left with that woman," said Shaz, giggling slightly.
"Well, I'd best be getting back. 'night, ma'am."
"Good night, Shaz."
Alex had dreaded the prospect that awaited her when she emerged from the ladies', but to her surprise the bustle and noise were no longer particularly oppressive. Her head was beginning to clear, and Al Stewart's "Time Passages" was bouncing along cheerfully as she made her way back to the table.
You reach out your hand, but you're all alone....
She caught sight of James, seated by himself at the table, contemplating his wineglass with an expression of either dejection or annoyance -- she couldn't decide which.
I know you're in there; you're just out of sight...
James looked up and saw her and, if he didn't quite smile, looked more concerned, and exhausted, than annoyed.
"Are you all right?"
"Better," she said truthfully. "Look, I'm really sorry --"
"No, that's quite all right. Something's going round just now. Bloke at the lab got it the other week. Still, you don't want to take chances."
"In fact I expect you'll want an early night."
"Yes. I think that would be best." Alex said it softly. "And I want to apologize, really I do."
"It's fine." He said it in a tight, formal voice, and Alex would have disliked him for it if he hadn't looked so disappointed and hurt. She laid her hand on his, and if he didn't pull away, he also didn't clasp it as he might have done before.
"Thank you. It was a lovely day, in spite of the rain, but we neither of could have done anything about that."
"No." He was still forcing himself to smile.
"As for the rest, well, maybe I shouldn't have had all that wine and rich food, especially after the coffee."
"Though, to be honest, I still regret not tasting that chocolate gateau." She squeezed James's hand. "Well, I'd best take myself out of the fray here," she said, with a glance about the restaurant.
"Will you be all right?"
"Yes. Yes, I will." Impulsively she leaned over and kissed him on the cheek. "Good night."
"Good night, Alex."
"And thank you, James."
"My pleasure." His smile was, if anything, even sadder than Shazzer's.
The unadulterated hell of going about in soaked boots was at last over. Alex wasn't certain her feet would ever be warm again, or even regain the slightest sensation, but it was heaven to see them once more.
Now for the dress, which suddenly seemed more form-fitting than she remembered. For a few minutes she struggled and wriggled and twisted her way out of it and, once freed, considered throwing the thing out the window, the better to be rid of a painful reminder of the day.
Still, there was really no sense punishing a piece of cloth. Maybe she'd wash it and put it in the back of her closet. Or give it to Shazzer.
Or maybe there would come a day when she'd want to put it on again herself.
For the third time that day Alex studied herself in the mirror. With her face washed clean of makeup, and her damp hair combed into simple bob, and her body encased in a fresh pair of pajamas, she looked curiously young, like a little girl being sent off to bed. This wasn't how she had meant to spend her evening -- alone, in her flat, and for the most part in the bathroom, repairing all the damage.
Still, there was nothing for it but to put the kettle on, then the telly. She had just done the one and was about to ease herself onto the couch and do the other when the pounding began -- not in her head this time, but on the door.
"Open up! Police!"
The bastard. He wouldn't. He wouldn't --
He had. Alex swung the door open for Gene Hunt -- jacket open, tie askew, a hand on either side of the door frame.
To be continued...
A/N: "The Love Song of J. Afred Prufrock" was written by T.S. Eliot.
Meinhardt Raabe (1915-2010) acted (and Billy Bletcher sang) the part of the Munchkin coroner in the 1939 film The Wizard of Oz, songs written by Harold Arlen and Yip Harburg.
"Down Under" was written by Colin Hay and Ron Strykert.
"Time Passages" was written by Al Stewart and Peter White.