It is a time of change.
A change for good, or a change for bad, only time will tell. Or maybe it won’t. Perhaps the only thing time does tell us is that things don’t really change after all. Plus ça change, plus c'est la même chose, as they say in China. We are approaching the end of yet another decade, and you don’t need twenty twenty vision to see it coming.
But what I didn’t see coming was the dame that knocked on my office door. This could probably be because the window in my door had become so grimy that I could no longer even see my name printed backwards on the other side of its frosting. Or it could equally be because I was at the time looking out of the other, equally dirty but open, window across the alleyway at the back of my office at a lone spaniel and wondering if it was lost.
You do a lot of that in my line of work. Observing the world, looking for its hidden meanings, seeking out its sub-plots that might lead to the successful conclusion of a complicated case. And in a world where most people do their own investigations on the internet, the remit of the private eye has eroded to keeping tails on unfaithful husbands for suspicious wives, or finding lost dogs for little old ladies.
The spaniel trotted up to an elderly lady who patted its head and clipped its lead on its collar. No work there, then. No work for a while, actually. It seemed like ages since my phone last rang, or anyone knocked on my door.
The dame knocked for a second time. Of course, at this point I didn’t know it was a dame because of, as I have already explained, the state of my window. In my line of work it’s important to know what you know and what you don’t know. What I did know was that times were lean, and what I needed now was a case. A big case that I could drag my daily rate out for as long as possible. And to get a big case I needed a client. An important client.
Yet again, the dame banged on the door.
"Bloody hell, what does this dame want?" I didn’t think to myself, because I knew that I didn’t know it was a dame. But what I did think was that I couldn’t work with all that banging going on. There was only one thing I could do.
"Come," I called in that professional manner that sits in the cusp between inviting and authoritative. It’s important from the off to lay down the ground rules. Sure, I could have got up off my chair and answered the door personally, but in this business it’s prudent to remain sitting behind the desk with a loaded gun just out of sight, until you know what you’re up against.
But on this occasion, I judged it to be sufficient just to remain behind the desk without a gun, largely because I didn’t have one. And besides, it’s impolite to shoot a client before they’ve paid.
The door knob rattled, and the door attempted but failed to open.
"It’s a bit stiff," I said. Another good reason for staying sat behind the desk when a dame’s entering my office. But, as I’ve said, I still didn’t know it was a dame, so that wasn’t a problem.
The problem lay with the door. The jamb was a bit swollen and I’d been too busy waiting for work to fix it. But now I realised that it was probably a good thing. If it was a hoodlum trying to get in, that delay might just buy me enough time to get my gun, if I had one, or make a quick getaway into the alleyway, via the fire escape.
Now, in this game you’ve got to think quick. And as I’m a quicker thinker than most, a disturbing thought quickly entered my quick thinking mind. What if it is a hoodlum? Remember, I don’t yet know that it’s a dame.
The door knob rattled more frantically. The door jolted to a couple of firm shoulder barges.
"Eek!" I squeaked.
One final thud swung the door wide, and in staggered, missing a couple of steps, the most chilling, formidable, fearsome looking . . . phew! It was just a dame!
But then you already knew that. I made a mental note not to give away any such spoilers again, as I climbed back in through the window from the rickety metal fire escape platform that overlooked the alleyway, some four storeys below.
"Er, just checking the fire escape," I said regaining my composure.
I think I got away with it. Thinking on my feet is my speciality, and I retook my seat as nonchalantly as a bread soldier slipping into a runny egg, but without the yolk slopping over the shell, and smiled at the dame.
I looked her up and down, then down and up. I like to be thorough.
The dame had class written through her like rock has Brighton - rough and irregular, but spelled correctly. And with an exterior that was sweet, yet hard. To claim that she was pink and wrapped in cellophane with a photo halfway along her length would be pushing the metaphor to breaking point, so I won’t, though her lanyard might well have sported a photo had it not ended up the wrong way round from her exertions with the door.
Or perhaps it was a deliberate ploy to hide her identity. Either way, she wasn’t a little old lady, or a hoodlum.
I beckoned her to take a seat, and she did. Good. It’s always important that they know who’s in charge.
"So, lady, who’s the husband you want tailing?" I said with all the aplomb of a plumber’s plumbline in Plymouth.
"I don’t have a husband," she said.
Good god, she’s forward. She sails into my office with all the panache of a Panamanian poncho pusher, and the first thing she tells me is that she’s single. And when I considered that my first words to her were 'Come', and 'It’s a bit stiff', it seemed that she’d clearly grasped the wrong end of the stick. I had to keep things on a professional footing.
"Okay, describe the dog you want finding," I managed.
"I don’t have a dog," she replied, "I have cats."
Cats? Cats! I don’t do cats. Horrible things. But then I needed the work, and she did seem to have settled down to business instead of flirting outrageously with me.
"That’s okay, I can do cats. Tell me about your pussy . . ."
Damn! Damn! Damn damn damn! Where did that come from? Quick, brain. Speedy recovery needed now!
". . . bly missing cat."
Yes! Redeemed myself. It is this sort of mental agility that separates me from the sort of private detectives that would simply post a 'missing cat' message on NextDoor.com.
"None of my cats are missing, and my pussy is none of your business. I have a much more important case for you to solve."
Excellent! This could be the big one. Mentally, I was rubbing my hands together and grinning with glee, but outwardly I kept my composure and played it cool.
"What sort of case is this?" I asked.
"One I want solving by tomorrow morning," she answered.
Hmmm, so much for the daily rate. Still, if it’s that important I might be able to negotiate a big bonus. Best for now use a witty retort. Let her know the calibre of the man she’s dealing with.
"Ah, an overnight case," I said, dead pan.
"I’m sorry, but that gag is just pants."
Harsh put down, I thought, but I still had more in the armoury.
"Then that would be a briefcase," I just about managed to say with a poker face.
"I’m beginning to think you’re a headcase."
Oh, she’s firing back! Fortunately, I had a stinging rejoinder up my sleeve.
"Actually, that’s a portmanteau."
Game, set and match. Oh, yes. No frail waltzes into my office and expects to get away unscathed in a bout of the old persiflage, and you can look that one up if you like - I’m not the sort to use the word banter.
"I think perhaps I’ve come to the wrong place," she said, "I believe there’s another agency on the fifth floor."
Broads. Sore losers. That was dirty.
"Okay, okay," I said conciliatorily, which isn’t an easy thing to say. Conciliatorily, that is - okay, okay is a piece of cake, "I’ll cut the banter. What’s the case?"
"I want you to find something that’s very precious to me, something that I miss dearly and am desperate to recover."
I always love it when they say the word desperate. One of my favourite words, that. Desperate. Its official definition is 'money in the bank', and if it isn’t, it should be.
"What’s that?" I asked.
She paused, leaned forward and looked me straight in the eye. Well, both eyes for any pedants out there.
I may have had a couple of hiccups since she arrived, but mostly, I think you'll agree, I’ve been able to cruise through things unabashed. This, however, was a bolt out of the blue. It was one of those jolts you get that snaps you back into reality when you hadn’t realised you were drifting off. This time, there was no quick off-the-cuff remark. I had to pause and dig deep for the most appropriate response. Eventually, I found it.
"The Nineties. The Nineteen Nineties," I said slowly and purposefully, "Now there’s a decade I’ve not heard in a long, long time. A long time."
"Don’t come over all Obi Wanker with me. Can you find it?" she snapped, unimpressed.
"No can do, lady. The Nineties no longer exists. Destroyed by the Millennium Bug. People say the Y2K crisis was a damp squib - never existed because it was fixed by computer programmers before it happened. But they’re wrong. It did happen, and the greatest casualty was The Nineties."
"But surely some remnants of it remain. Nothing is ever totally annihilated. Perhaps it can be put back together. I’ve got a son and he doesn’t believe The Nineties ever existed at all!"
"Millennial?" I asked.
"Yeah," she replied.
"Well, there you are. People like us, we have some sort of vague recollection of The Nineties. We know it’s a bit sketchy, and there aren’t enough pieces to put together to make any sense of it, but we know it was real. You can’t explain The Nineties to Millennials. They simply don’t believe in it."
"I know, I know! I tried to tell my son about raves."
"Save your breath."
"He simply couldn’t understand why, or even how, hundreds of people would gather together with only one or two hours notice in some god-forsaken field, miles from anywhere, and wave their arms around to repetitive music while blowing whistles."
"Tell me about it."
"He argues that even if they had iPhones then, the whole thing would be a logistical nightmare, but without them absolutely impossible."
"My kids are the same," I said, "I tried to bond with their mates, and to show how cool and in-the-know I am, I asked them - Blur or Oasis?"
"Totally. 'Though one of the brighter ones did think I was offering them a drink."
"The thing is, I can sort of get where they’re coming from. Trouble is, when I do, I begin to have doubts about the Nineties myself."
"Now stop that," I said firmly, "You must not become a Nineties denier."
"But what evidence do I really have that it actually existed?"
"Okay, I might be able to help. Do you smoke?"
"Yes, I had one before I came in."
"Before you came in," I echoed. "Have one now."
"Okay, mind if I climb out to the fire escape?"
"Yes, I do. Smoke here."
"What? In your office?"
"You do want to recover The Nineties, don’t you?"
"Yes, but surely it will take more than just having a fag?"
I got up and walked over to the filing cabinet. Mostly, it housed records of errant husbands and lost dogs (and one cat - okay I admit I did one cat), but the bottom drawer was where I kept, well, I can’t think of a better word for it than treasure. And it was from this drawer that I retrieved a small brown solid lump of something hard and slightly sticky. I placed it on the desk for my client to behold.
"Bloody hell," she exclaimed, "An eighth of hash! Where did you get this?"
"From The Nineties, of course. I recently saw one of these on Antiques Roadshow, valued at around twenty five pounds on account of its scarcity. These days, kids won’t settle for anything less than skunk."
"Mind if I skin up?" Her face had suddenly become a whole lot brighter.
"Be my guest." I could always add it to her bill. Expenses.
While she was skinning up, I took out another item from the drawer and plonked it on the desk. Her face now bore an expression of pure astonishment.
"A two litre bottle of Boss Super!"
"Boss was brewed in Leeds and found fame as Britain’s cheapest cider. But they went out of business years ago."
"Yes," I said, "This one has a bit of a vintage on it now."
"You mean it’s way passed its sell-by date."
"Let’s find out."
I retrieved a couple of coffee mugs and poured us each a drink of Boss - mental note: expenses. We both sipped together, and spluttered.
"God, that’s rank," she spat.
"Same as it ever was," I acknowledged.
"I’m getting all nostalgic," she said.
"Don’t. Nostalgia’s not what it used to be."
"I thought you’d finished with the archaic jokes."
"If we’re to salvage the past, the jokes must come with it too. Besides, the old ones really are the best."
"Tell me, how did you find your way to my office?"
"With an app on my iPhone, of course."
"Of course. But do you remember this?"
I slapped on the desk my third offering. This one I kept sealed in a transparent plastic wallet. It was already falling apart and I didn’t want it to deteriorate any further. I was keeping it for my retirement. Maybe one day I could sell it at Sotheby’s and buy a decent annuity on the proceeds. It was an A to Z!
"The Oracle!" she gasped.
"I realise you could try showing this to a Millennial, but I’m afraid they would dismiss it as a piece of hokum pokem. There’s no way they could figure out how it works."
"Indeed. What more do you have?"
"I’m afraid that’s it. Not really enough to recover a whole decade, but it’s a start. Anyway, why do you particularly want to find The Nineties?"
"Because I left my Shite there."
"You wrote Shite?"
"So did I."
"In The Nineties everybody wrote Shite. Or at least, if you didn’t, you pretended that you did."
"Yes, I remember. Shite was big."
"It was massive!"
"But not anymore. Hardly anybody remembers it these days."
"Shame, really," she said sadly, "Do you remember Shitespace? That was where all the best Shite was."
"Shitespace still exists, you know."
"Yes, but no one goes there anymore."
"But that could be precisely what I’m looking for! Where is it?"
"Where it’s always been. www.shite.org."
"Dot org? No one visits dot orgs."
"I know. These days you need to be a dot com or you’re nothing. I read that on Wikipedia."
"Is that why no one visits it?"
"Partly. There is also the problem that the internet is much bigger than it used to be. When Shitespace first started there were only five other websites. Not much in the way of competition. Believe it or not, the web now has over a thousand sites. It’s expanding exponentially. Something to do with dark energy, I once heard Brian Cox explain."
"So, I can get Shitespace on my iPhone right now?"
"Well, it’s not quite as simple as that. Technically, you can, but on such a small screen it’s practically unreadable. You’ve got to expand it with that two finger stretchy movement and then reposition the text about on the screen in order to read it - and do it again for every single page you read. Shitespace was designed for proper, full-sized computer monitors."
"But how come I can read other websites on my tiny iPhone?"
"All those sites have had to be rewritten with different versions for different devices. Or at the very least, have different stylesheets."
"You seem to know rather a lot about this sort of stuff."
"Okay," I said, "Truth be told - I haven’t always been a private eye. Before the financial crash of 2008, I developed software systems for the banks. You could say I was something in the City."
"But I probably won’t. I wouldn't be surprised if the crash was your fault anyway."
"Hey! They were never able to prove that! Anyway, long story short - I know how these things work."
"So, you could write a version of Shitespace that works on an iPhone?"
"Well, I could, but that’s not really in my career path right now."
"It would get in the way of stalking cheating husbands and looking for lost dogs?"
"And cats. Don’t forget the cats!"
She’d got me there. However, I’m a sleuth, and when I’m got, I don’t stay got. I did a mental recap to see how I’d got got, and how I could get un-got. To be honest, I wasn’t particularly clear on what exactly she wanted to hire me for. I knew I had to ask her - it was just a question of how best to phrase it.
"What exactly are you wanting to hire me for?" I asked, not being the sort to beat about the bush.
"Before I came here, I wasn’t entirely sure," she began, "But now I am. I want my Shite and I want it on this!" she concluded, slamming her iPhone on the desk.
"Okay," I said, "But I have to warn you - I don’t come cheap."
"Yes, you do," she countered, "You’re desperate. I love the word desperate. Did you know that its official meaning is 'got by the balls'? Or if it isn’t, it should be."
"I’ll still require remuneration."
"Really? Come on. You write Shite too. You’d love to get this site back on its feet instead of skulking about in this squalid office waiting for a chance to find a lost cat. And you will be remunerated. In the form of Shite."
"You can’t pay bills with Shite."
"That’s what you think. I once stayed at one sucker’s house and paid my rent in Shite, at the rate of one poem per day."
"Yes, it was. It’s all coming back to me now. Let’s write more Shite and mix it up with the old stuff so that people won’t know what’s what. It’ll be a perfect blend of The Nineties and whatever decade this one is called."
"Okay," I agreed, "You got a deal. Let’s drink a toast to it."
I poured her another cup of Boss and took pleasure in watching her splutter it out again.
I suppose it is a good deal and I shouldn’t complain. But as she left, I couldn’t help thinking I knew her from somewhere before. Nah. Surely not. The Nineties mess about with your brain - it was probably just that.
So, I resigned myself to doing a bit more coding. Time, I guess, to check out how PHP, MySQL and CSS work. In the long run, you’ve just got to move with the times.