Tuesday 9 February
To meet Porthole Drift at the semi-submerged, Half-Drowned Water Rat, a quaint little place on a natural island of compacted skulls, just outside Manchester’s inner city limits. This is one location I avoid when on my canal-side run, lest I be tempted across this very gangplank for something capable of putting hairs upon the hoariest sailor’s chest. Incidentally, you may wish to know that Licky and myself are training for Liverpool’s half-marathon next month; Porthole certainly doesn’t. While I explain how runners are traditionally chased down streets thonged with scousers by a healthy mix of locals insisting they buy you a drink and locals insisting you buy them a drink, Porthole simply looks at me down his pipe, catatonically unable to register interest, even through his non-lazy eye.
‘The marrar in ‘and,’ he wheezes, producing a lethal-looking fountain pen while Muff, his dog, slobber-mouths an ancient cracked black ledger across the wonky table towards us.
‘Of course,’ I sup my nettle rum, grateful for my newt-skinned tongue protector, ‘your investigations, how – erm – go they?’
‘Ruled a few out,’ he sighs, screwing up his supremely weathered, turtle-shaped face into something approaching that of everyone’s favourite Jersey-based detective, ‘But tha’ dunt mean I canna rule ‘em back in igin, innit?’ he cackles, youth flooding back to his face, stopping just short of the tidemark round his craggy, saggy neck.
Drift goes on to explain, accompanied by both expansive gestures and intricately explained and annotated expenses claims, how he first suspected that the coal barge had been stolen by one of the criminal underworld, perhaps as a valentine’s gift for Betsy Belpas of Blackburn – a notorious coke fiend. His one clue so far – a sketch from a canal-side speed monitor revealing two men struggling on the towpath next to an unattended vessel – suggested that competing overlords may have fought over their prize, perhaps allowing the tug to schlep on unattended. However a trip to Blackburn (an incredible £1 4s 6d) allowed Porthole to slam shut this particular avenue. Following a recent binge it was confirmed that Betsy’s nose had dropped clean off and its wooden replacement – though beautifully polished – was doing nothing for the local boys. Back to square one (by bus – an infinitely more satisfying £0 0s 3d).
‘Could there be a political aspect to all this?’ I ask the famed investigator, trying to ignore an alligator-faced man sipping tequila opposite.
‘Yes – though I pronounce it: political. But that’s fine. Cool, in fact.’
Though I’m anything but; Drift considers this.
‘Strangest thing,’ he says, finally, ‘found a little book next to the body of the navigator – Marx it were writ by. Yet it weren’t funny at all. Maybe cos they can’t writ down what the dumb bloke does in them Puppet Shows, like.’
‘Not Karl Marx, by any chance?’ I venture.
‘Knows him do you?’
‘No,’ I answer, humbly, ‘though poritikal he certainly – erm – be. Bumped into his friend Engels some years back. Told me the working class was deprived of all pleasure except sexual indulgence and intoxicating liquors.’
‘Talking of which,’ and Porthole shuffles to his feet, ‘I best be off to see Mrs Porthole, if you catch my drift?’
‘Of course,’ and I hand him a small sack of money lent to me by warehouse management in lieu of my Voluntary Early Death, ‘but do keep me updated.’
‘I will that,’ he promises, with as much significance as he can be bothered to summon, ‘I will that.’
I watch him go. Finish my drink as slowly the luminosity of his genius fades from a place unworthy of his awe-inspiring company.
TO BE CONTINUED...