Befre I speak, I have something important to say...
- Julius Henry Marx
Although Alfie Mains has never read Ernest Hemingway, he is strongly influenced by the life of the famed American novelist, and in particular, his desire to live the life he would write about.
To that end, Alfie rejected his comfortable background, the virtually guaranteed path into financial management, and instead beat a path to the world of 'real employment' and 'real jobs' – the kind promised by each Government.
As he hoped, the experience of such roles gave Alfie the inspiration and perspiration to compose 'Phantom Engineer', his second procrastinated attempt to write a novel.
Alfie claims that Phantom Engineer is magical social realism set in a softly familiar reality. It is post-war Britain after the age of consensus politics with the country slowly lurching from one kind of governance to another.
There are key differences. A deterrent was found for the effects of nuclear radiation, therefore no arms race as we knew it. The UK's capital was moved 100 miles north to spread the centre of administration, business and industry. A new kind of parliament was formulated with lawyers at the centre. Additionally, and with some financial guarantees, the monarchy abdicated.
Enjoy the extract below!
Is this it?
It's much smaller than I imagined.
Yes. Very little machinery is actually required. The
information arrives in a way that is very easy to store. Much easier than digital processing. Or so it seems so far.
Well, there will be problems.
…there are problems you mean. There have certainly been quite a few so far. I would say that storage has been quite a significant problem really.
Well, yes…well…it does depend on the vehicle, the vessel. But you know this already, Daisy. This is not why you came here. You came for results.
I came to see if this was all worth it. Although given what has happened I fail to see how it could be.
It is all we have. I don't have to operate the device of course.
Stop playing games with me, Keith. What do we have? Some data? A read-out? Can we reproduce it? Please tell me it is more user-friendly than the Fischy Files.
No, no. You should know better than that, Daisy. I have the whole story here.
You interviewed him?
Daisy, I'm surprised at you? We have the full story here, somewhat abridged true, but in here the boy still speaks to us.
Are you theorising ghosts now, Keith?
I think we have found a way to let the ghosts speak to us, Daisy. As yet, I cannot dispute the evidence.
Ok, switch on. Let's hear the truth.
Yes, the moment of truth. Just as the boy may have put it..
I Sort-Of Love My Job
When the printing machines took a breather from their demanding churn, the radio would filter out through the opened doors into Schools' own sorting office. Often it would frame the grind of producing lithograps as the sweetest euphony, the intrusive smarm of the DJ's and the mediated fare of the programming a sandpaper irritant to the daily sorting of the mail. But every so often the right tune would sneak its way into the routine, alleviating and complementing the repetition. It could be some golden oldie, surely accidentally inserted, a peculiar but welcome deviation from the concensus. Or it could be something new, an arrival from the nightlife underground, its register too fresh to be banished to the specialised hinterlands of tribes, subcultures or the naysayers, too radical and early with enough of an audible relationship to current chart trends to be rejected so quickly. Everyone would recognise it. Conversation might ensue, light disagreements would flutter, the strange and welcome arrival would be processed. There might even be laughs. A spark, or something, had travelled between us. It came from the radio, but the song came from elsewhere. It coaxed and cajoled us into feeling as though we were all together. All in this. I often thought it started here, in these half-moments, but really it started further back.
But then a lot of things go through your mind on the morning post run. In a way you had to prepare yourself. There was always the early edition of The Evening Accomplice to look through. Sometimes I would even have a glance at The Civilian, grab a few snippets of opinion and pass them off as my own as the week progressed. In the unlikely event anyone would discuss rubber shortages, schools funding and beauty rights for sub-saharan nations. Occasionally I would even intercept the odd journal such as New Librarian, The Public Lawyer, and a new title that was delivered just to the Managing Partner, Devolving BookKeeping with its provocative sub header, Radical Solutions to Information Dissemination. DBK was infinitely the sexier of the three with some wild ideas about public libraries and so forth. One of the choice topics of debate was the theoretical creation of a universally accessible information source led by Keith Orr that he had once put forward in the fantastical 'I Dream…'. column. He was already a myth, unreachable, an apocryphal person. So unreachable nobody knew where he was anymore.
I had a 37-hour working week. Or to be more precise, that was the time I was clocked in for. Working never had much to do with it. So I had some time to fill-in, and explore. The original parts of the Counsel House were old, as old anything else in the city. The Art College, opposite City Schools was once thick with the tar of the city, as choked-looking as the wheezing buses that trundled past it, forty, fifty times a day. When they cleaned it off, it looked like the poster child for a new city. I don't know what they did with all the muck. Shot it in to space perhaps. It had a half-life of a thousand millennia. God help aliens, although that's probably something of an oxymoron.
At least you get to walk around a bit in the job. There's a lot of people to see. All sorts worked for the city. All races, and probably all religions, although races are definitely easier to spot. Some suspicious types thought the City had a policy of positive discrimination, but that’s not really how it worked. My job - pejoratively labelled post-boy by some – offered a cross-section view of people and their workplaces. That phrase is from woodwork classes. I listened sometimes.
Wherever you walk, you can see The Candlestick, and hear the roar of construction surrounding the Totem Pole. You could see the Candlestick from the first floor of my school. I didn’t understand what it was then. I asked both Mom and Dad, but they didn't understand either. It is always there, its always been there, for me. Always been empty too. All 300 ft and the predicted 350 foot of The Totem Pole waiting for Annie and co, waiting for the future. They say it will arrive any day now.
I walk on. Usual beat. Strolling around the City buildings, roughly set apart by about a mile and a half. Didn't need the keys here. Quite a walk down to the Dousers Department, though I gave that job to someone else a while ago. Some of the offices were pretty anonymous, particularly those built during the time of the Doggam partners. The Evening Accomplice called it 'planned decrepitude'.[i] But you'd barely notice them if you didn't work for the City.
My work-day morning quarry, the City Sorting room, was full of us A4 types, standardised and easy to pigeonhole. I was, and still am, younger than many of my Deliverer colleagues, but nowhere near as mad. I liked many of the old blokes though. The litigation-fearing no-smoking rule had been introduced four years ago in my first year with the City. But many of these old geezers still had their index and middle finger cocked for that resuscitative fag. But set free of ambition, we were all united as agents of the envelope. The middle-aged dudes, aged by boredom had high accents, were used to talking fast in case they might suddenly find themselves with nothing to say. One guy, Derek, had the strangest complexion, almost liquid, a countenance of wax. I think inside too he was melting. Many of these guys had the shakes, and at least some of them had been sent to be Deliverers because of industrial accidents, and the City had a contractual duty to employ them somehow. These were our colleagues. Brothers in arms. One colleague was actually a brother without arms. He didn't do any serious lifting. I was horrible to him when I was new and stupid. Jeff reprimanded me. He's still got that on me.
The walls of the Counsel House, though often repainted, hung heavy with the residue of nicotine. The old fellas, probably not as old as they looked, had a substitute biro in hand, an inky prosthetic Rothmans that would jut end first into the corner of their mouths in the breaks of conversation. With the amount of rabbit still in the air, my guess is conversation was once only halted for a intake of the cancer gas. It's not something I've been able to join in. I've never smoked anything bar the odd prepared joint (who hasn't?). But deep down cinema memory does think its cool. Part of me doesn't want to be left out of their community. Part of me doesn't want them to feel I'm left out. They'd just feel bad.
But I was part of their world. I breathed the same durable manilla air each day. My world too understood the officious DL, the utilitarian C5, and the simplicity of the understated C6 – so precise, so mathematically pure. These eternal forms, these sheaths of documentation were sistered by the somehow wasteful and frail 12 X 10, itself shadowed by the sturdy, masterful 15 X 10. Lately, in an attempt to gild the lily, the stationery wholesalers had been pushing a laterally extended 15 X 10, with the cravenly commercial 'gusset' appellation. The innovation proved popular amongst my City colleagues though, routinely asked for by name by smirking young men and the braver secretaries at the store room stable-gate. The capacity of the gusset did certainly stir the imagination, allowing for ring-bound documents to be packaged and passed around as easily as a peace pipe on the Great Plains of America. Yet there were rumours and hints of more complex wrinkles on the standard measurements destined to crowd the market. My senior brothers in Delivering cautioned against such excesses, predicting that City budgets would forbid further indulgences. Privately, I dreamt of an 18 X 12, a Titanic of Correspondence, carried aloft from Schools to the Counsel House but its coating tragically collapsing under the bloated ambition leaving aide memoir, memos, notes and queries scattered to the untiring updrafts that whipped and caressed the Stufford stone of the City fortifications. No doubt such feverish imaginings filled the minds of my fellow Deliverers although, like me, thought it best not to mention it.
But all of these design classics, real or fictional, had to make way for the cost reducing internal envelope, perhaps the evolutionary endpoint of the otherwise futile '12'. Ribbed by rectangular sections, the 'internal' never travelled actual distances, yet through its multiple addressees it hinted at a rich skein of regulations and procedures unknown. The 'Internal' was the governmental interpretation of the songline, the planned economy rewrite of carbon dating. Should the manilla enclosure survive its 36-destination projected lifespan, its pouch might have carried dire news of school closures, reduced benefit plans, birthday collections, or as we once found, an ill-lit, mildly-titillating striptease video destined for one of the chief Family Support officers. We Deliverers all passed on the tape after only one viewing and eventually sent it on to its rightful recipient, a Mr. Ron Fox, such was its limited appeal. Hopefully, unlike the rest of us, his expectations of pornography were minimal.
New Build was a new department to me. But it was the first destination on the top left corner of a raggedy old internal that had lately been part of a fire hazard of such envelopes in the Noises Department. Some arselicker had come up with the idea of hand-drawing new compartments on the back of internals thus giving them a lifespan dreamt only by the hoary fathers in the Old Testament. It was Jeff as it goes. I fucking hated Jeff. I know its wrong. I know hate eats you up. Of course, you never saw him commit marker to envelope. And after his budget saving Great Leap Forward, I sweated xylene for a week. So much I even went off the smell.
But budgets were tight that year, a bit like any other year, but the conspicuous consumption of stationery items had been a particular efficiency touchstone of the Anon Partnership. We Deliverers were asked to be especially vigilant. After two years in the job, any Deliverer would pride themselves on knowing each department of the present and recent past. Indeed, on the most driest of days, starved of event, impromptu quizzes on arcane department names, whereabouts of specific offices, or distinguishing features of City corridors could hurry time. Needless to say, the role of a Deliverer was not one to attract girls, aside from Big Hazel. And even Big Hazel eschewed the quiz. I only mentioned New Build once, during the quiz. After that I was sure I wanted to find it first. In that small world where everyone knew everywhere, I would set sail like Columbus to a new world with an envelope as my raft. It was an idle fantasy, deep down I was sure that New Build may just prove to be a chimera, a blind alley leading to the almost extinct Brick & Mortar offices. Quiz aside, the older guys would have very little to do with me or any of the juniors. We were a reminder of something lost, an enthusiasm. Even me.
They would avoid Jeff too. Like a particularly lethal dose of the clap. Jeff worked in City Dousers, close to Ralph the head Deliverer. Nearer retirement, beak-nosed Ralph respected 'the corporation' and the decent working life he had had. He talked a bit about Singapore, and being forced to build the bridge on the Kwai on the Burmese borders. His chum was shot by the Japanese. It all sounded like a long time ago, and in terms of its relevance to anyone under 25, he may as well have been blathering on about his favourite sci-fi movie back in the Barrier Age. Which he did as well. That's the way it seemed anyhow. Despite being a year my junior, Jeff fancied himself as Ralph's replacement. With many of the Deliverers unsuitable for management duty or any kind of normal social life, it was possible that Jeff had a chance. I dreaded Ralph's retirement. Jeff had green eyes of evil, and the face of a stoat. His hairless mug was lined with immaculate skin much unlike my own that somehow greyed at the black growth of its daily stubble. Not a slender man by any means but one at slobby ease with his vague chub and short legs, he'd tell of the limitless women he'd had. Worse, he'd talk lasciviously about the different 'types' he'd 'tasted' – you know, hair colours, nations, races, posh or not. Sex as stamp collecting. Jeff the philandering philatelist. I wasn't getting laid much, but the first time we met he regaled me with a tale of removing the maidenhead from some Brazilian girl. I had never met anyone from Brazil. I had never met anyone from South America. I hadn't met anyone else who had met anyone from Brazil. I had never met anyone who had met anyone from South America. Yet no matter my self-defeating feelings about Jeff, I somehow came back for more, and began to believe his unlikely stories. I even sometimes went for drinks with him. When he was in full flow with tales of his 'sexploits', he devoured food like a last supper. It was tough keeping up with him in this mood. And expensive. Somehow I always managed remain slight and wan despite stuffing as much down my gullet as Jeff. I blamed the nightlife. My nightlife.
'The swirling neo-Gothic mosaics of Katherine Street's School of Applied Arts that were once threatened by soot now stood revealed and proud, painted black, and in stark contrast to the current style of Temporary Garish with homogenised pastel hues daubed on every new building project and clad to oblivion'.[ii]
Occasionally, very occasionally my duties (if such a grandiose term could be applied to my labours) would send me to that house of non-real-work. Black polo-necks reigned amongst the hairy-faced young men and the girls would gather in Breton stripes-a-plenty. Some of the girls looked great, and many others looked interesting. Most looked neither but had art to think about. Lucky people. I guess there aren't many people that are blessed with things to occupy their minds. But imagine having natural beauty and having art to think about. Sounds brilliant, but a lot of artists end up topping themselves so it's said. Mustn't be as great as it looks. When I first began life at the City, I used to moon over the art school girls. When I thought I was misunderstood, when I didn't have an outlet, and more crucially, when I hadn't got my leg over or hadn’t had anything resembling a girlfriend. I'm sure it’s a common tale. Although after catching me gazing mournfully at a choice pair of art chicks from over the road clad in artfully torn black tights, vintage miniskirts and bruised DM's, Jeff had his own view of their quality that offered a entirely different perspective.
'They're all trampy lesboes'
Through Jeff's inspiration, City Stores reckoned they'd saved about £5K in 12 months. Peanuts in the scheme of 'tings, but enough to save a job here and there. Probably. Jeff's annoyingly simple idea to manually add lines to the backs of the one-sided internal envelopes had, he reckoned, got him at least two shags in the safety offices strong room, a reinforced steel and concrete block housed in the Schools department equivalent to those used in high street banks. Though security would have been a key selling point of the location, the strong room was also famed for its arctic micro-climate. So I assumed Jeff had chosen it so he could excuse away the diminutive nature of his genitalia 'on the flop'. I should add that I hadn't actually seen Jeff's penis at any point, it was just a rumour floating around the counsel that I was happy to contribute to / invent. And this version of Jeff's choice of sex environment became the accepted fact rather than the perhaps dull reality that none of it was true in the first place. I think I may have got the idea from the Johnny Jewel 'myth'.
Jeff's delegation skills led to my honourable selection as the 'go-getter' in this initiative. Some people are born to lead. Some are born to take the piss. And, as even a casual study of social or political history indicates, often those two birthrights combine. Regardless, my temporary status as field officer meant I had to go out and locate as many internal envelopes as I could find. Throughout the City. In every building, on every corridor, in every office, on every desk. I was then, Jeff said, to have the honour of joining 'the design team'. Though it wouldn’t show up on any cost sheet, I proffered the idea that the time spent working on this was probably about £5K. After briefly considering my alternative view on the economics of the plan, Jeff quickly removed me from the design team and promptly resent me out to go-get more 'internals' from the further-flung reaches of the City. Jeff said to make sure I re-check every filing cabinet, every desk and every store room. Watch out for the store rooms he told me. He was very careful about that. And as Keith is fond of saying, you've got to give chance a chance. Giving chance a chance. Some call it destiny.
I was too pissed off at first to realise that the latest exciting instalment in my hunt for internal envelopes would lead me to the Noises department. More of an outhouse than a building, Gilligan House was little more than an administrative centre, hidden well away from the executive bits of the City. You could walk to one side from another in 2 minutes. Gilligan House was launched as an idea and pledged to the City by the Doggam Partners, thus compelling the incoming firm, the Latchkey Fair to its construction. The late but reputedly not-so-great and ultra-vindictive treasurer of the Latchkey Fair, Jeremy Gilligan had still to sign off the materials to the project, unsurprisingly at half the cost reserved for the project by the Doggam Partners ('Gilligan has once again swung the axe to the Doggam's lunatic extravagance'[iii]) which meant it felt like it would blow away with a gust half the strength of Jeff's post-lunch bum-blasts. Although on further consideration, that's not an analogy that does full justice to either side of the comparison.
Suffice to say that surrounded as it was by the facelifted City University, Noises was one of the least prepossessing of the City's collection of shining jewels and bad eggs. On top of that, it just had…well, and there's no getting away from it, the place just had bad vibes. It took me a little while to realise it, these were early days, but Gilligan House had no echo for me, no feedback. Gilligan House was the end of an idea, the place where the wave, the song, hit a dead end. But in that, as much in need of the song as anywhere else.
It may have been Gilligan's artlessness that sucked in the wave but there could have been another reason. Two years into my stellar career with the City, the route of my working day had become the new normal, and the inspiration, the blueprint, for my nocturnal searching, or wandering. But Noises, the City's audio wing of Environment, was a rare destination for me. There was little in the way of internal post, a product of the department's relationship with City University. It was, I told myself, somewhat typical too that it would be out of my normal circulation. Typical, as amongst its staff it had, aside from those of political notoriety, the only famous person to claim their salary from the City coffers. I'd been here maybe a handful of times before. Seen her at the end of corridors, through glass partitions. I guess its different if you see her every day but like how most behave around anyone with certain levels of fame, reputation, or peculiar charisma, I had a need for her to see me, that a glance from her would validate my existence. She was a workaholic it was said. Her 'Pop' career was over, long since. Long enough for me to not know who she was before being told and finding out more from the Fischy Files. This was her day-job. I would soon haunt her absence at her evening job at Art & Artefacts, the residual department that still supported Museums after the sell-off.
I wasn't one of those kids who can pull an awareness of fashion, music, gizmos and hair from the aether so didn't know her from Adam or Eve at the beginning. One of the Deliverers had briefed me with a rough idea of what Daisy Devon AKA the 'pop artist' Daisy Devon looked like. Now I come to think of it, it was Jeff. Jeff stopped just short of saying he'd shagged her. I think he said something along the lines of 'she's still got decent tits, but her boat race isn't up to much and she dresses like a gyppo'. In hindsight, I'm not altogether certain whether this thoughtful profile enabled me to single her out in the first instance.
Fortified with reinforced glass, a push-activated aluminium safety bar opened up Noises. In the event of a fusillade of light ballistics impacting Gilligan House, the door would be the only thing left. The wind blew a vicious and unforgiving gale off the high-rise student digs, architecturally-primed suicide prompters. I told the security guard, Pete (they all knew me by now), I'd come for the envelopes. He gave me a smile that looked in the other direction, a smile that dreamt of a galaxy far away from security doors opening and closing, of sand, of beaches, of legs. I gave him one back. I doubt if mine referenced anything but draughts. Sometimes this was the sort of exchange that got you through the day. But once inside, the ambience was just so much rain-soaked corrugated cardboard, damp, spare, and unwelcome like a wet bank holiday before pay day. Gilligan House's concrete block was set squat with two identical floors and I made my way in to each office, six in total, three on each floor, separated for no explicit reason that I could figure out. I narrated my tale of internal envelope woe to secretaries and administrators that ran the gamut from officious to bored and fairly attractive. I tried to make sure I involved the latter in my quest as much as possible. Even the limited value of my envelope quest represented a break from the routine so they were eager to join in. I reckon I'd gathered about 400 spare envelopes from the ground floor offices. My holdall was huge though, with room for plenty more.
The working day, some seven hours, often felt longer. I would drag out the wandering, post in hand to compress the time. Outside of Gilligan House, there were few corridors of power, or even broom cupboards of intertia, who's location, shape and purpose were not easily retrievable from memory and now more familiar than the names of my family. But the deadening flatness of Gilligan House should have encouraged me to vamos as soon as the holdall was half-full. But I was only half-way through the building. And Daisy, as I recalled, worked upstairs, squirelled away from any rubberneckers and geek archivists.
I can't feel the wave (the wave, the awareness – call it what you will) most of the time. But I know it's there, like occasionally expressed specialised knowledge. But it isn’t just a set of stray signals bouyed on synapses darting around the nervous system. It's a latent sensation, physically felt, beginning in the gut with the potential to rise and spread. And yes, like vomit, it will eject and spill uncontrollably.
But here in Gilligan House, it is absent. I take a fancy to the idea that it's just Gilligan House, but I know it isn't. The stairs beckoned to the deadening of the sensation. When I was a child, and not so-young to have been over such things, I dreaded ascending the stairs in the Winter. The house was fronted by a porch entrance built in front of the original door. The frame demanded an alcoved partition. The split-second of total darkness that preceded hitting the light switch on the landing upstairs filled me with dread and horror and hastened my pace up the first eight stairs, two at a time. I was sure that something awful lurked behind those alcoves, something shambling, something barely recognisable as a living creature. Surely in time it would claim me. It wasn't dark here in Gilligan House, but without the wave, I was a child again. I was thinking it must have been something I ate as I scaled the stairs to the first floor, but if nothing can be multiplied, there was a greater feedback of zero at each step. I almost decided to go back to the Counsel House and leave my manilla booty there and then.
Another set of fire doors blocked the way but I knew she'd seen me before I'd seen her. This first contact with one of the others was different. There was no feedback loop. One of us could receive, one of us was a conduit, not a transmitter. She was placed at the end of course. Her desk betrayed little evidence of the standard plywood as it sagged with paperwork, pocket folders and two desktop computers, (no expense spared – is this how they bought her?). Plus scratchpads, note papers, and sundry stationery items. Her hair was long with telltale signs of grey peaking out through the copper hair-dye.
'Can I help you?'. Even now I can't work out whether I was expected or not. Regardless I didn’t respond. I thought I was nervous at the time, but there was something very wrong here. There's a kind of autism where the sufferer fails to recognise faces. I could see Daisy's face, her clothes, her desk, but some fragment, a very important fragment was absent. Maybe she was the Bogie Man after all.
She asked again, with the dutiful but distracted tone of a GP.
'I've come for your envelopes'.
She smiled. Sort of, not sure to let the specimen live or to dissect it. But I might be being unfair. I waited for a demand for explanation, but instead she gave my holdall a cursory look and rose to her feet, adorned as they were with functional flats. She removed a key from the pocket of her jeans, and unlocked the flimsy, unpainted door of a storage cupboard behind her, a security feature surely demanded by reams of confidential reports bulking out each shelf.
'I think you'll find everything you need in here'
She was more right than she knew. For what lay within, was not the compliance-led bookkeeping, bound vertical in the dust of crumbling manilla.The bulk of the shelves lay empty. For my part, sure there were box, lever and suspension files galore, enough to psychedelicise the senses if binders were your high. But most were ex-employed, awaiting nothing more than the city dump. Although each large shelf, hollow, battleship grey, square and steel, issued back a good two feet, I could just see the edge of a craggy cliff of envelopes on one of the shelves above, haphazardly placed, so two or three betrayed those perfect diametric lines. My quarry, the internal envelope! And in plentiful supply. Oh such bounty! A part of me knew Jeff would be pleased when I arrived the booty. And a deeper part of me wanted to please him. The realisation was enough to make me want to set light to the whole sackfull.
'You seem very excited'
'Yes – well you know what it's like when you find what you're looking for'. Conversationally, I often went looking for social binding, the glue of common ground.
'I certainly know that'.
I looked at her again, for the first time. Her silver rusted hair was used to finding itself longer, but age and need had found short to be pragmatic. It was disturbing to me then. The pastel blue eyes circled my face, curious but not as scientific as I initially thought.
[i] Graham Headshaker, The Evening Accomplice, 23/05/ 19**
[ii] Brian Fulsome, Towards Sustainability, (Tall Press, 19**), 104.
[iii] John Heraldry, The Evening Accomplice, 06/08/19**.
THE PHANTOM ENGINEER
With the inevitability of technological innovations often appearing non-chronologically, or not at all, the world has the shape of a compound '70's, 80's, 90's and early 00's.
This is just the background though. At the centre is our unnamed narrator. Set away from the centres of authority, decision-making or cultural production, he is eager to learn the truth. The ultimate truth. The truth behind communication. How to reach ultimate understanding. He knows he has the strange and uncertain talent to achieve this – and more, he is confident everyone else has the capability to receive his message, whatever it might be.
He is drawn, moth to a flame, to the others who burn most brightly with this talent, this'wave'. A TV presenter. A provoking journalist. A local businessman. But most of all, a senior colleague within local government. This inevitable beauty also holds the key to his growing knowledge and ultimately, provides the muse to his message.
There are other players. Daisy Devon, a once-famed musician. And Keith Orr. Is he svengali, architect, or manipulator? Is he indeed the phantom engineer? Or just one phantom engineer?
At all turns there is Byzantium, What links the players to the metal's curious properties? And just what does it have to do with trains?
Don't let this put you off though. For the more wary reader, there are occasional flashes of vice and sexual desperation.
Some reviews of the unpublished Phantom Engineer already in:
'Why did you write this?'
'Who do you think is going to read this?'
'I don't get it'
'This is satire, right?
'I think you should set it in a ski lodge'
Alfie is currently writing his second novel, a racy thriller in a quite different style. He hopes to have finished it by the time he's dead.