It was a black night, the sort of night on which only murderers - and salonistas - are abroad. The heavens were black, weeping dirty rain; the streets shone slick black with moisture and sodden leaves; the Divine Ms Anna was even garbed in black, in a smart little black dress that showed off killer legs and what she called her ‘filthy librarian’ shoes.
‘I’ve had to get out my lady wardrobe,’ she said. After years of perfecting the art of typing while lying prone on the sofa, she was now in full time employment again, replacing someone on maternity leave from the Daily Record in the provision of ‘advanced content.’ Advanced content, it transpired, was what in the olden days we used to call feature writing. If I’d known I was doing something so important I might never have given up journalism.
There could not have been a more fitting guest writer for the evening than Neil Mackay, dark-haired and swarthy and wearing, of course, a sharp black suit. Neil, who is head of news at the Sunday Herald, has something of the night about him and kept abandoning his bean soup to plunge into the murky depths outside the door and have a fag. He was smoking roll-ups, on the questionable ground of health - he’d once seen how cigarette filters were made and decided pure tobacco would be less detrimental to him physically than cyanide and half the contents of the periodic table.
His book, All the Little Guns Went Bang Bang Bang, published by Freight Books,is a dark and atmospheric tale of two child murderers who grow up with the Troubles of Northern Ireland as the backdrop to their lives - as well as child prostitution, neglect and abuse. May-Belle and Pearse have little in their lives except each other. Their touching friendship is punctuated with violent attacks on various children, described so graphically by Neil that his own partner told him she liked his writing but did not like his book.
‘Does motherhood do something to women, that they can’t read about violence to children?’ he pondered. ‘I love our daughters just as much as she does but I don’t have a problem with that on the page.’
The character of May-Belle, it turned out, was modelled on the 1960s child killer, Mary Bell, a person with huge resonance for Neil as every time he misbehaved, his grandmother would tell him to watch out or he’d turn out just like her.
‘I was very shocked by how society treated people like Mary Bell or Robert Thomson and Jon Venables, who killed wee Jamie Bulger. They were treated as monsters yet they were just children themselves,’ he said. ‘I wanted to make May-Belle and Pearse almost heroic, without minimising the impact of the violence. It’s good if readers find it sickening because I wrote it sickeningly.’
He started off the evening by reading a passage where Pearse spends two hours finding out how a gun they’ve acquired works, much to May-Belle’s impatience.
‘You can’t just pick up a gun and fire,’ he said. ‘It’s just not that easy.’
Maggie Anderson, our octogenarian salonista and the only one of us who had had any contact with guns, agreed. She lived in Aden during the time of the military conflict of the 1960s and was given a revolver for protection, though she would have had no idea how to fire it.
‘I had what they called a guard-body,’ she said, adopting a suitably Yemeni accent. (Having been a newsreader out there, Maggie has a finely developed sense of the dramatic.) ‘I was going into the market one day when a bomb went off inside.’
Ahmed, her driver, abandoned the gun, and simply shouted, Maggie, Maggie, Maggie, fuck off home now. That was the only English he knew; his knowledge of the workings of the gun were presumably similarly extensive.
As Ms Anna recharged everyone’s wine glasses and served delicious Clementine cake, Neil and Maggie bonded over bombs. Neil had originally been drawn into news reporting by an explosion in Belfast docks, like an A-bomb over the city. He was in the newspaper office that day after a friend at the paper, knowing he wasn’t making enough money from his career as an actor, invited him to do book reviews. When someone was murdered in the city centre that afternoon, Neil was the only one left in the office. Book boy, the editor shouted, you go.
‘It was so exciting, so filled with adrenalin, that Book Boy became Murder Boy,’ said Neil. ‘Newspapers were filled with dysfunctional lunatics, so I felt at home.’
His taste in literature is impeccably Stygian. He may be the only person on the planet who has managed to read Hubert Selby Jr’s Last Exit to Brooklyn more than once, his first time at the age of sixteen, when after a particularly gruesome depiction of the gang-rape of a young prostitute, he threw the book at the wall, thinking, What am I doing reading this? He clearly worked that out overnight, because the next day, he picked it up again and has since read it over twenty times.
‘He’s a genius, so challenging. That’s the kind of response I’d love to have for my books,’ said Neil, almost wistfully.
It was a gauntlet thrown down to the salonistas. Next time we must hone our wall-throwing skills. A grey, measured reaction will no longer be acceptable in our literary world. From now on, only black will do.