Eamonn McKeon is a 21-year-old writer from Purley, London. He mostly writes short stories, and is particularly inspired by the works of Raymond Carver, Flannery O’Connor, and David Foster Wallace. He is currently studying for an MA in Writing at the University of Warwick.
Frank Middleton’s debut appearance on The Scott Mullins Podcast was going swimmingly until they started talking about the Buck Knife.
He’d handled every previous question with ease. Maybe he came off a little flustered when Scott asked if he was a fan of combat sports – it was hard to say no, when former British middleweight champion and podcast co-host Willie Martinez was sat a few feet to his right – but Frank thought he did a pretty convincing job of improvising his way out of it, nonetheless. Fifteen years spent as an M.P. had made him a skillful bluffer.
They were around an hour in, and the livestreaming figures were steadily increasing. 42,327 were currently watching on Youtube, according to the laptop, which was set in the middle of the table amidst a sprawl of magazines, water-bottles, and coffee mugs. Art pieces, too, all very quirky, were displayed sporadically on the white oak surface. In front of Frank was an edge sculpture of a baby orangutan, its strange, cherubic face gazing up at him, its eyes black and nearly-human.
“Now, I gotta ask you something.” Scott was leaning forward onto his elbows, his biceps bulging like flesh-coloured tennis balls. A playful curiosity etched his face.
“Oh, ask away.” The conversation about football – hardly his strong suit – had just come to a natural lull, and Frank felt ready for anything. Here he was, with two quite rugged and burly men, one a former elite athlete with over twenty professional knock-outs to his name, the other an ex-paratrooper, ex-convict, and now a country-famous podcast host, talking about sports like a trio of old mates recalling stories in a boozer. Frank swirled his mocha and wrinkled his lips into a quiet grin. Talk about good PR.
“I saw an interview you did recently – I think it was on ITV-”
“-And you were talking, obviously, about all the survival stuff you’ve been doing since you resigned – and we’re gonna talk about the book soon, of course – but one thing stood out for me-”
“You said that you now carry your Buck Knife with you at all times, and the interviewers, maybe they didn’t hear it, but if they did hear it, they glossed over it. Now, you don’t really do that, do you?” Beneath the dense foliage of his beard, Scott’s lips were pursed with amusement.
Frank chuckled. He let the question sit for a moment, enjoying how the interviewers clung to his silence. Frank hadn’t appreciated the room’s set-up, with Willie immediately to his right and Scott directly opposite him; it made for quite a jarring experience, his eyes never quite sure where to fix their attention. Like he was being cross-examined. Boxed in. His silence was a way of reclaiming power.
He spoke, finally. “No, I really do carry it with me at all times.”
Scott gasped. “No way,” he said, elongating the vowels, pinching at his tattooed wrists in disbelief. “I mean, Christ – that thing’s as big as my forearm!” The faint whiff of cannabis, which had clung to their skin and clothes, permeated the air as the hosts fidgeted. They must have shared a joint just before the podcast began, probably making the erroneous assumption that Frank wouldn’t have been interested in joining them. It didn’t matter. Maybe Frank would share one with them afterwards.
Scott scanned Frank up and down like he was looking at a whole new man. “No way,” he repeated. Like maybe he’d underestimated old Frank, the spindly, soft-spoken politician. Former politician.
“Hold up a sec,” said Willie, tilting his body. His outfit, as usual, was all-black, and his face, far from being rendered docile by years of retirement, seethed with a latent violence; the kind, Frank thought, that could never quite leave a fighter. But he seemed in good spirits these days, and especially now. “Does that mean you’ve got it on you as we speak?” he asked, scratching his perfectly bald head. The skin was pulled taut over his skull so that the veins were bulging.
“It does indeed, Willie.” From his pocket, Frank produced the sizable black tool which had kept him company during multiple expeditions over the last three years.
“Jesus,” Willie cried out, characteristically animated. “Look at Frank, all armed and dangerous. You’re a spy, aren’t you, Frank? Some MI5 shit, right?”
“I think I’d be failing in my duties as a spy if I told you.”
A childish excitement, which had been brewing since the podcast began, stirred by thoughts of unprecedented social media exposure and a revitalised public image, swirled deep inside Frank’s belly, and he tried his best to stifle any visible appearance of its existence. But god, it was hard not to smile. So much had depended on this interview going well. And to think Declan, his agent, didn’t think he’d ‘gel’ with the likes of Scott and Willie. He gelled better with these two than with that insipid sycophant.
“You live in West London, don’t you, Frank?” asked Scott.
“Earl’s Court, to be exact.”
“You not worried about being stop-and-searched?”
“I think I’m a little too white and middle-class for that.”
The regret was instant. Frank dug his nails into his thighs and winced, his eyes fluttering with panic. Why had he said that? You don’t make those kind of jokes – race and class, a really double whammy – not in this day and age, and not when you’re trying to change certain preconceptions. Former Etonian MP gloats about his privilege on popular podcast show. Twitter would have a field day. Declan would say I told you so. No. Frank would snap his scrawny neck before he got the chance.
Unease hung in the air like a bad smell, and both hosts cringed. Or maybe they didn’t. Maybe Frank was overthinking it. Neither seemed offended. Perhaps they were just taken aback by his audacity. Hell, they might even have been impressed by it.
The silence was dragging, though, and Frank faltered. It would look worse if he tried to clarify himself, so he scanned the room in search of a conversation starter. The wallpaper behind Scott, a red, faux-brick design, was covered with artistic eccentricities, much like the table: a coffin wall-shelf lined with an array of insects in resin; numerous psychedelic pieces, including a picture of a man in a suit knitting his brain like a skein of yarn; The Scream by Edvard Munch. But his mind was racing too quickly. Trying to speak was like trying to punch in a dream.
Scott came to the rescue. “Well, let’s hope there are no coppers watching. Now, let’s talk about the book. Tell me about it. The Dog in the Fight?”
Frank could have kissed him. “Yes, well,” he blurted, feeling the giddiness begin to fade. Come on, Middleton – keep it together. “I suppose it’s an autobiography, of sorts, or perhaps more a memoir. But it’s mostly focused on the things I’ve been up to since I resigned, and so in that sense it’s perhaps more of a manifesto, a call to action – not a self-help book, though; those tend to be lazy and superficial, I find…”
Was he losing them? He didn’t want to intellectualise things too much; this wasn’t the right audience. Had to pull them back in. “But obviously, it’s mostly about the three months I spent alone out in the Brecon Beacons straight after I resigned. And then, of course, my trip to the Chernobyl exclusion zone in the Ukraine, last year.”
That reeled Willie in, at least. “The Chernobyl thing sounds mental,” he said. But Scott seemed distracted, somehow, like he was trying hard to work something out. His large hands were pressed against each temple, the glossy black hair spilling over his fingers.
“The title, though. Tell me about that.” Scott’s voice was weary.
“Well,” Frank said, a little confused. Did Scott not want to know about his time in the Ukraine? Did he not hear? Did he not care? “Well, as an MP, there are all these connotations that get attached to you – oh, he’s just a posh boy, he’s ineffectual, he’s weak, he’s detached from the day-to-day hardships of life – et cetera. So I wanted to test that – assess my doggedness, so to speak. See what I was made of.”
“You a tough guy, then, Frank?” There was a steely edge to Scott’s question. Frank hesitated. He wasn’t sure whether to laugh.
“I wouldn’t say that. But I’m tougher than I thought.” Frank took a deep breath. If Scott wanted intense, he’d give him intense. “I think it takes a kind of toughness to get off the conveyor belt that somebody else has laid out for you. You know, I was following the standard trajectory: Eton, Oxford, Westminster. Just before I resigned, I was getting lined up for a hefty promotion. Private Secretary for the Minister of State. But I woke up one morning and I just thought, no. The way has been paved for me, and I want to pave my own way. And that was the moment – in that split-second decision, where I decided to be my own man, unashamedly – that I became a dog.”
Christ, that was good. That little bit could go viral. He could sense Willie was impressed, but Scott still looked stern, implacable. It didn’t make any sense.
Then the host broke his expression and laughed. It was not mocking laughter, but hearty – affectionate, even – and relief soared through Frank like a headrush. “I’m just messing you with you, mate,” Scott said, stretching. “No, of course, what you’ve done is cool as hell. It’s inspiring, for sure.”
“Good,” said Frank, giddy again. “Phew.”
“But what I wanna know – at Oxford, were you a bit of a dog there?” He gave Frank a knowing smile.
Frank paused. He would have to watch his words. Christ, Oxford was what – nearly thirty years ago, now? A haze of cocaine-addled buffoonery fogged up most of his university memories, though a handful had endured. These maintained an arresting clarity.
The podcast room was inherently intimate. Not just because it was small, at about eight by eight, but also because it was dim and windowless, the only light source a kind of vague red neon that lapped down from the ceiling. The mood felt like that of a boys’ sleepover – clandestine, mischievous – especially now, as the two hosts leaned in, eager to hear Frank’s response. He felt that power again.
“Well, I suppose you could say that.” Frank gave a wry smirk, and rolled his fingers on the desk.
“Come on, Frank,” said Willie, suddenly riled up. “Give us something. Bet you were part of one of them clubs, you know, with the tailcoats and all. Bet you were a right dirty sod.”
Frank couldn’t help but giggle, but the sound came out all wrong. It was shrill, like a girl’s. He cleared his throat and made a mental note not to laugh like that again. “Really, gentleman, I can neither confirm nor deny your allegations.” Willie let out a theatrical whimper. “But yes, you could say I was fairly popular among the fairer sex.” And he was, too. He was handsome in his twenties. He was still handsome now. Perhaps not in the piercing, sculpted way that Scott was, but he’d preserved that base-level of attractiveness. A journalist once described him as ‘skeletal and dead-eyed’. Shortly after publishing that piece, the journalist’s daughter died in a car accident. Frank wasn’t pleased when he learned the news, but he didn’t lose any sleep over it, either.
“How many girls do you think you slept with in those three years?” Scott asked. “Give me a ballpark figure.”
“Oh,” Frank said, flustered in the best sense of the word. “I’m not sure it would be gentlemanly of me to entertain such an estimation.”
“Fifty? One hundred?”
“Somewhere in that region,” he lied.
“Was one of them Catherine Green?”
Frank’s heart froze.
“Or are we only counting consensual partners?”
Scott’s arms were crossed, his head tilted. His eyes, quizzical a second ago, now studied Frank with workmanlike intensity. How had he? – Catherine? – Frank’s thoughts bubbled into a panic too severe to articulate.
“What about Susie Hedges? Maria Fontaine? Erin Norris?”
A whirlwind. It was a whirlwind of shock and denial that hurled through Frank’s body. It drew all moisture from his throat, all breath from his lungs, all guile from his mind. He was helpless.
“Do these names not ring a bell?” Scott was a starved man poring over a menu. “Erin Norris told me that she woke up in your dorm with zero recollection of how she’d got there. But she knew one thing, Frank: you’d had your way with her.”
Wasn’t happening. This wasn’t happening. The laptop: 51,325. The book. I want to talk about the book. This is a joke. He’s joking. We’ll laugh about this. We’ll smoke a joint and share a beer and they’ll laugh about how they really got me, they really fooled old Frank –
“Maybe this was too long ago? How about something more recent? Amy Clarke said that you grabbed her knee at a fundraising dinner in 2009. Later in the evening, you lunged at her. You said she’d lose her job if she told anyone.”
Frank tried to shake his head, tried to say no, but his head was locked into paralysis, and his voice a brittle lump of metal in his throat. Beads of sweat rolled down into his eyes. He’d have to kill himself. Only option.
“Do you remember Amanda Soulier? She shadowed you back in 2011. For her work experience. Do you remember what you did to her, Frank? I have daughters of my own, you know. Three of them. It hurts to even think about.”
Frank’s left hand stabbed at the orangutan sculpture on the table. He had to clutch onto something. His fingers pried into the grooves and ridges; the nails dug into the eyes. Oh, Scott. I thought we had something going, here. Why are you doing this to me? And Willie? Frank did not dare look at him. But it was clear. He’d been set up. His friends had betrayed him.
“See, I didn’t know any of this, Frank,” Scott continued. “I don’t think anybody did. Apart from the girls themselves, of course. When I announced on Twitter that I’d been having you on, I was inundated with messages. All separate accounts, different stories – but all with the same theme.”
Frank felt his hard-fought composure leaking out of him like air from a perforated helium balloon, but no: he would neither shrivel nor recede. He refused – not that his refusal would have anything to do with it; for something else was rising inside Frank Middleton in that moment, curdling in his lungs and inflecting each of his breaths. Not quite hatred, but something like it, and in his mind’s eye he saw it festering, swelling, this ugly thing that had always been there, only now breaking free, renouncing its benign form. Red and pernicious, it hungered for appeasement. It would be impossible to contain.
“You got anything to say?”
Frank could only twitch in response. Tears welled in his eyes. His nostrils flared. A sense of inevitability closed in on him.
Scott leaned over the table so that his face was right against Frank’s. “I said, you got anything to say? Pervert?”
That did it. Frank’s right hand had been squeezing the Buck Knife under the table, drowning the black handle in sweat, but he did not let the thing slip; not as he swung it from out under the wood, and not as he plunged the blade deep into Scott’s face. Too fast, he was too fast for the guy to do anything, strong as he was, experienced in combat, all the rest of it. His left hand grabbed at the back of Scott’s head, the fingers tight around those envious locks, his right hand continuing to work.
And all the while, his mouth making words that he would not remember
and his knife doing things he would not forget.