Usual disclaimer: I have neither connection nor claim to Ashes to Ashes or Life on Mars, its characters or scripts. Pub sing-alongs are another matter entirely.
Any song or poem I've referenced is either in the public domain or cited according to fair use guidelines.
A/N: I was in the midst of working on various Cranford, Persuasion, Life on Mars, and Ashes to Ashes stories, including my multi-chapter Gene Hunt fic, when my local PBS station aired episode 6 of season 2 of LOM. The scene where Sam and the Guv play "Whiskey in the Jar" in a hospital room gave me earworm for days. Hence this story, which I'm going to dedicate to the late Mitch Miller.
As always, I am eager for reviews, particularly feedback from all you LOM and A2A fans.
A Couple of Desperate Cases
So here we are - the Railway Arms, where all is forgiven, if not forgotten, and the craic is mighty, the landlord serves only his finest, and the great and the good sit alongside the bent and the bitter, and no one remembers which is which.
Of course I'm exaggerating a bit. We've not forgotten who and what we were, or everything that came before this. Sometimes we even talk about that old life, disappointments and all, and there's no need of whiskey or wine to loosen the tongue and let out the secrets, for all that the drink flows freely. It's only that here no one tells any lies.
And no one shuns any man or woman who steps through that door. So here in the Railway Arms I'm just another copper, as welcome at the bar as the sainted Sam Tyler and his Annie, or one Detective Inspector Alexandra Drake, who even now can't walk through a room without the eyes of all the men following her.
I watch her along with the rest. Old habit. But I'd be an eejit not to. This is a pub, not a monastery.
Does she know we're watching her? I've never asked. Does she know how beautiful she is? I've never told her, though if I did, I'd say she's even lovelier than the first time I laid eyes on her.
Oh, yes, we have a bit of a history, DI Drake and I, as you've no doubt heard. I came here in possession of a few of her secrets, and God knows I played my part in them as well.
God knows. As I said, we've not forgotten everything. What we were in life, what we became, is never wholly forgotten.
And the memories become even stronger here, I think. At least they have for me. With a little prodding my brain - or whatever it is I've got now - summons up the reflection I saw in the mirror the first time I put on that uniform, and the good intentions that went along with it.
Of course all that fell apart not many years later, and you've no doubt heard about that as well. But the earnest young copper and the cynic who took his place have each had their day, and now I've gone on to something else. God knows what.
But whoever I am now - spirit, soul - all my earliest memories have survived intact: the images of home, and the sounds, always the sounds - of the sea, the voices, the music.
Fill the heavens with sweet accord...
Ah, it was a different world then.
Heavens. Sweet accord. We've done the one, thus far. What of the other?
Well, just think of it: a pub full of coppers and only the best whiskey. Did you really think we'd never take it into our heads to sing?
So we do, more evenings than not. Someone always has to start us off, of course, and occasionally I'm pressed into service. It doesn't hurt to be one of the few tenors in this place - a cliche, I know, but there you have it.
Often enough, though, it's Ray Carling who pushes his glass aside, stubs out his cigarette, stands up, and sings whatever comes into his head - "Danny Boy," football songs and the like, though, with his voice, DI Carling really ought to spare a thought for some other material - Cole Porter, maybe.
Some evenings DCI Litton leads us in "Whiskey in the Jar," and almost every man in the place joins in - even Tyler, though not Carling, for some reason. And a strange sight it is, all those coppers singing the song of an Irish outlaw, and at the tops of their voices too. But the line between the lawman and the lawbreaker was blurred often enough in that other life, and perhaps it is here as well.
Of course a sing-song isn't really Alex Drake's style, and I don't think she even knew what a party piece was till she got here. It's not that she holds herself apart - she's happy enough to sit with all those Fenchurch East and Manchester coppers, and mouthy enough to hold her own with every last one of them - but she is from a different world. Another cliche, I know, but true enough.
All that Mahler and ironic detachment ought to make her insufferable, and I suppose it would any lesser woman. Instead Alex is very popular, so popular that I don't think anyone but me notices the loneliness in her eyes.
Still, she gets on with things, and continues to surprise me, even here. In fact I think she surprised us all that one night when the natives were getting restless.
"Start that lot again," said Phyllis Dobbs, "and I'll arrange to spill me port and lemon down the front of your trousers."
"All right! All right! Bloody hell, it was just the one song," said Ray, his voice rising in pitch just a bit. Not much for anger management, our Raymond.
"One's plenty, thank you very much," said Phyllis. "Remember there are ladies present."
"It wasn't so bad," said Annie. "And it's not as though we haven't heard worse - lots of times."
"Then we're making up for it now, love. Besides, it's the principle of the thing."
"Hear, hear," said Alex, raising her glass in Phyllis's direction.
"I told you they would spoil it," said Ray, looking at Chris Skelton. "I told you."
"Told me who would spoil it?"
"It's their local too, mate. Any road, you'd get bored if it was just blokes here," added Chris.
"I would n- - "
Carling stopped himself before that last word came out. Like I said, no lies.
"Fine. Fine. I'll leave you to it, then, shall I?"
"Oh, for God's sake, Ray," began Alex. "I didn't mean for you to retire from the field."
"No, no, I'm sure you're quite capable of entertaining us," said Carling, drawing appreciative murmurs from a few coppers at a nearby table.
"Oh, no, no," said Alex, looking a bit alarmed.
"Actually, that's quite a good idea," said DCI Litton. "Let the lasses take a turn. DI Drake can start it off."
"So what's it going to be, Alex?" asked Ray. "Few choruses of 'Kumbaya'?"
"At least you'd know the words to that, Ray," said the little dark girl, Shazzer. "And it would make a change from 'He Rolled Her to the Wall.'"
"Know how that one ends, though, don't I?" said Ray, for all the world like the cat who got the cream.
"Think we all do, mate," said Chris.
"Everyone forgets the words sometimes," said I. "Everyone. I was in America once, in a smokey bar - this was when you still could smoke in bars, mind - "
"'Still could smoke in bars'?" said Ray, gobsmacked.
"Yes, Ray, smoking has been banned in most public places," said Alex.
"The Yanks have gone mad, they have," said Ray, lighting another fag, likely on principle.
"Oh, it's not just in America," said Sam. "Similar laws have been passed in Britain."
"Banning smoking?" asked Chris. "Even in pubs?"
"Even in pubs."
"So I was in this bar, in some godforsaken town or other," said I, taking up my story again. "And your man turns up - I won't name names but he worked with Dylan, and Scorsese made a film about him and his mates - "
"Someone who worked with Dylan?" asked Chris. "In a pub like this one?"
"God's honest truth. So he starts this song, but can only remember the one verse. That's it, just the one. So he keeps singing it and singing it.
"The crowd loved him, though. Just sang right along. Mind you, they took the piss, too - men all over the room keening the way he did. But it was a grand evening."
"I don't believe you," said Carling.
"No, no, it was brilliant -"
"They'll never ban smoking in pubs," said Ray, as Alex and Sam rolled their eyes at each other.
"You sounded like the Guv just then," said Skelton.
"No, I didn't."
"Yes, you did."
"You did, Ray," said Sam, grinning in that way he has. "Just like him.
"Remember when the Guv said there'd never be a woman prime minister?"
Carling laughed. "He did and all. Said it'd never happen, not as long as he had a hole in his -"
"Ray," prompted Sam. "Ladies present."
"Sorry," said Ray. "Oi! Where are you going?" he asked Alex, who had got to her feet. "You can't skive off now."
"You were to give us a song," said Superintendent Mackintosh, deftly pulling rank.
"Hear, hear," said Litton, providing the backup.
"Oh, no," said she, as all the men within earshot joined in whooping and clapping, with Carling and Skelton chanting, "Alex! Alex!" I half-expected her to tell them all to piss off, and half-expected her to take the bait.
Bait it was.
"Oh, all right," said Alex, rolling her eyes again. "What shall I sing?"
"Opera," said Skelton, apparently in earnest. "Bet you know a lot of opera, boss."
"You don't want to hear opera, Chris. Besides, I don't really have the voice for it."
"Too bad. It'd make a change from 'Danny Boy.'"
"Are you going to spend the whole evening taking the piss, or are you going to let 'er sing?" DI Carling asked. He'd gone red in the face again.
"Something by Tammy Wynette, then," suggested Litton. "Maybe 'Stand by Your Man.'"
"Or 'The Man That Got Away,'" said Mac dryly.
At that title a chorus of groans went up, and the requests began in earnest, from coppers all over the room and all over the map.
"'We'll Meet Again,'" said one of the Londoners.
"'Someone to Care for Me,'" called out a copper from Lancashire.
"Sing 'Longing for You.'"
"'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,'" said one of the Scotsmen.
"'Don't Let Me Be Lonely Tonight.'"
"Yes, thank you, Raymondo. We were quite aware of that," said Alex, to roars of laughter.
"Just ignore 'em, ma'am. Sing what you like," said Shaz, as soon as the noise had died down a bit, and Alex was standing there with the eyes of a hundred expectant coppers on her, and probably no idea what she'd got herself into.
She laughed a bit, perhaps out of embarrassment. "What to sing. Well, I'm seized with an impulse to try 'Fields of Gold.' My daughter used to love that." A sympathetic murmur passed through the crowd. Everyone here has heard about Molly, of course.
"But I don't think I could do it justice," said Alex quietly. "Perhaps one of the others, then, from the same album."
She stood there a moment, clearing her throat in the way singers always seem to do - old habit, I guess, from that other life - and then she began.
O come all you maids who live at a distance
Many's a mile from off your sway.
Come and assist me this very moment
For to pass away some time.
I smiled. Mary Black. Unmistakably Mary Black. I even think Alex was imitating her note for note, breath for breath, whether she meant to or not. But it sounded good.
Singing sweetly and completely
Songs of pleasure and of love,
For me heart is with him altogether
Though I live not where I love.
The other coppers in the room had fallen silent, and it felt as though we were all holding our breath.
When I sleep I dream about you.
When I wake I take no rest.
Every moment thinking on you
My heart o'er fixed in your breast.
But although far distance
May be of assistance
If from my mind your love remove,
For me heart is with him altogether
Though I live not where I love.
I saw Shazzer brushing away a tear, and I don't doubt I'd have caught some of the men doing the same, if I'd had a look round.
So farewell, lads, and farewell, lassies.
Now I think I've made my choice.
I will away to yonder mountain
Where I think I hear his voice.
And if he - if he -
Her voice broke then, and there was a pause while we all sat there, and Alex stood alone, not looking at any of us.
I got to my feet. "'If you call, then I will follow,'" I prompted. She didn't look up, didn't say a word, so I sang it for her myself.
If you call, then I will follow -
For a moment I thought Alex was just going to leave me to it, but that's not her way. It was never her way.
If you call, then I will follow,
Though the ocean be so wide.
For me heart is with you altogether
Thought I live not where I love.
She stumbled a bit over the last verse, her voice breaking again, but she stayed with me, followed my lead. I've no idea how we sounded together. I've no memory of anything at all but that look on her face. It could have made a man's heart stop, but of course mine did stop, long ago.
Then Carling had to ruin the moment by starting the applause a bit too soon.
Alex looked relieved, though, and Skelton must have seen it too. "Another glass of wine for DI Drake, please, Nelson," he called out. "And whatever Mr. Summers is drinking," he added, nodding at me.
As I said, all forgiven, nothing forgotten.
Alex sank back down into her seat, and I saw Ray get up from his, go over and put his arm round her and whisper something in her ear. At times I believe your man Raymond is fonder of DI Drake than he likes to let on, and I can't be the only one who's seen it.
After that things returned to normal, or seemed to. Nelson brought Alex another glass of sauvignon blanc, and some Bushmills for me. He'd put on the record of "Whiskey in the Jar," the Thin Lizzy version, without even being asked, and we all turned our attention back to our drinks, and our conversations, if we'd had any to interrupt.
For a while Alex was fairly barricaded behind a wall of coppers from Manchester and Fenchurch East, and anyone else who came up to say a word, but after a time she stood up and went over to the bar, and there I joined her.
To be so close to her is almost indescribable; as I said, she's more beautiful than I remembered, grows more beautiful by the day. Ah, she was a pale, sad thing when first she came through that door; it was as though someone had hidden her away from the sun for a long time. Now I can see those little golden lights in her hair, the flush of her skin, and the subtle color of her eyes - her eyes, and their shadows deep, as Yeats would say, and as I can't help thinking. Nothing is black and white here. Nothing.
As I came over Alex turned to look at me - no smile on her lips, but that same soft expression in her eyes again.
"Thank you, Martin."
"There's nothing to thank me for. And you should sing more often. It suits you."
"Maybe not. Things didn't go exactly as I'd hoped."
"So you forgot the words," I said. "Happens to all of us. Especially Carling."
"Only I didn't forget them, did I?"
"I remembered them, Martin. All of them."
Before I could ask her what she meant, Nelson came over with her wine, and my whiskey.
When he'd gone, Alex sighed. "Maybe I should have sung 'Fields of Gold' after all."
"And have the floor awash with the tears of a hundred sentimental coppers? Have a heart, Alex. This is supposed to be heaven, not the other place."
She smiled for me, and not just politely. I hadn't made her laugh, but it would do.
"I suppose you're right. And 'Fields of Gold' certainly could do the job," she said, almost her old self for a minute. Then she added, "Molly loved that song. 'I never made promises lightly - '"
She didn't sing it, and she couldn't finish it either, now that the tears were coming. I saw her close her eyes, take a deep breath, put one of her hands to her breast, right against her heart.
"Molly'll think of you whenever she hears it," I said softly. A poor sort of comfort, but it was all I could offer.
"Perhaps. Or maybe she's already moved on, Martin." Oh, God, the expression on Alex's face just then.
"No, no - "
She managed a smile. "Molly was listening to Shakira when I - when I died. God knows what she's listening to now. No doubt it's something else entirely."
"That doesn't matter," I told her. "It's the memory."
She looked right into my eyes then. "It really is all just memories, isn't it? Like me and Shakin' Stevens."
"Shakin' Stevens. 'Green Door.' When I was younger than Molly is now, I was obsessed with 'Green Door.' I've moved on too, but the thought of it still makes me smile."
"Then hold on to that thought. It's a good one." I picked up my glass, clinked it against hers. "Come on now. Drink up." .
With that, something changed between us, and so did the expression on her face. I didn't know what had done it - a word, a gesture - but whatever we'd had was shattered.
Still, I knew better than to ask what was wrong, or why she suddenly seemed a hundred miles away from me. I'm not sure I could bear the truth.
We stood together for a moment longer, both of us politely sipping our drinks, until at last Alex noticed Ray and Shaz deep into an argument on the other side of the room. "I think I should go provide DC Granger with a little backup," said Alex, raising her eyebrows at me. She'd gone back to her usual tone too - as I said, everything shattered.
I played along. "Oh, I think DC Granger is more than equal to a battle of wits. It's not as though it's a fair fight, is it?"
Alex laughed at that, but she was going; I couldn't stop her.
"Thank you, Martin. Thank you again."
I watched her go. As I said, I'm neither a monk nor an eejit. But she didn't turn round and catch me looking at her, not once.
...one man loved the pilgrim soul in you, and loved the sorrows of your changing face.
Right here is where I should write something about gin joints and being noble, but I'm no hero, God knows.
Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. And I have, at that.
So what penance would you give me? Perhaps eternal pardon, only I have to spend my days and nights with a sad beauty who's always just out of my reach?
Ah, Gene Hunt, you got me in the door of this place. Don't think I'm not grateful.
But then, like the bastard you are, you brought her here as well, and shattered it all to pieces.
A/N: While working on this story I learned that "I Live Not Where I Love" has appeared over the centuries in many forms and under various titles. Here I've very deliberately used a combination of two different versions of the lyrics - one sung by Jean Redpath and one Mary Black used for her album Speaking with the Angel.
Hymn excerpt: "Holy God, We Praise Thy Name," written by Father Clarence Alphonsus Walworth.
Poem excerpts: "When You Are Old," written by William Butler Yeats.
"Fields of Gold" was written by Gordon Sumner, AKA Sting, and recorded, most memorably, by the late Eva Cassidy, and more recently by Mary Black.