by Ian Stevens
I had arranged to meet my father in his watering hole of choice. His idea, not mine.
Sweet Jesus, not mine.
Even as I approached the building I felt the first acidic squirtings of apprehension begin in my belly, the prospect of entering the bar roughly equivalent, in terms of pleasantness, with trapping a one millimetre flap of scrotal skin in a hastily hoisted zipper.
I hated this place.
Since the first unfortunate evening spent within its walls.
I saw it now, some hundred or so metres up ahead, the peeled paint of its sign making the name of the establishment hard to decipher, though I had no need to read it for confirmation.
I played a quick game in my head, mainly for the purpose of distraction.
The Cottage. Hateful.
The patrons. Hateful.
The staff. Hateful.
It was a simple game, true enough, but it entertained me mildly, forestalling the inevitable sense of worry and dread and revulsion and fear that coursed through me each time I swung open the shit-brown painted doorway that led into this particular Circle of Hell.
That first night in the bar still troubled me.
I met my sister up the road from The Cottage, in an altogether more pleasant drinkery, where the beer was good and the chance of having a glass thrust into your face before the evening was out was remote at best. Remote, not absolutely impossible but then, name a tavern that can make that claim. Her new chap was in tow, a sociable enough creature who seemed unlikely to beat her, which made for a pleasant change. We sat and we drank and we drank and we spoke. All was going well until, inevitably, my sister suggested a change of venue. Well, no second guesses on her selection and, as the boyfriend seemed keen, too, I wasn’t feeling contrary enough to disagree and tagged along. Besides, if she got sufficiently drunk no doubt she’d break out the ketamine, which would at least make the experience tolerable.
There was already an atmosphere in the place when we arrived, though at the time I put it down to my own dislike of the establishment, heightening my sensitivity to mood, or perhaps imagining it entirely. As was always the way, as soon as she arrived she pissed off for a cigarette and normally I would have joined her but, for whatever reason, I declined, complaining of a sore throat to explain my peculiar behaviour (“You don’t want to smoke? What’s wrong with you?”) and stayed at the bar. Getting bored, quickly, I headed to the gents to relieve my bladder, just to occupy myself really, and when I emerged chaos reigned. I ducked beneath a flying beer bottle and made for the bar, eager to claim my drink before it was used as a projectile, turning, leaning up against the counter with another drinker, the only other person in the damn place not fighting. In the ninety seconds or so it had taken me to drain my bladder, a full scale bar brawl had broken out, my sister in the thick of it. I could just make her out, her reddish brown hair flying around before her head disappeared from view, like a bather pulled under by a Great White, one second there, the next gone, though with a violent jerk of the neck as a powerful force was exerted from beneath. I tried to spy her through the mêlée, my vision obscured by flailing arms and torso’s bent double as ten, maybe fifteen buffoons set about one another. From the outside it was hard to determine who was fighting who, whether there was a ringleader or indeed whether there were teams here. Maybe it was a Friday night ritual, I thought, like The Royal Rumble in wrestling, where two captains pick sides and fight it out, last one standing winning a case of lager.
I saw her, then, emerging from beneath the pack of animals, on all fours, clawing her way out, shoulder barging her way through then, at the last moment, just as it looked that she would be clear, someone grabbed hold of her from behind, hauling her back into the fracas, and the gap she had created closed up again. It was like something from a zombie movie, a human victim scrambling clear of the slavering hordes only to be thwarted by the clunky script-writing and dramatic incidental music.
I drank the last of my lager and left, vowing never to return, a vow I managed to maintain for some two months before family obligation drew me back in, another fight and a pint evening of trauma to endure.
And here I was, on the threshold, one hand on the crap coloured door, wanting to turn around, to flee the way I had come, onto a bus, away from here, to find a place where drinking a beer did not automatically come fraught with the threat of violence but, when the doorway opened from within and Lenny made to leave, my presence was discovered and a chain of events that would end in me taking a life could commence.
We sat in an uncomfortable silence, each cradling a half empty glass. For my part, I was searching for a new topic of conversation, as we’d covered all the usual; football, The Beatles, my job. For his part, well, who knows really, Sometimes I look into his eyes and feel as if I am looking into the orbs of a bovine, the vacuous nature of the returning gaze seeming devoid of thought or sentience.
‘You seen Nan?’ I asked out of sheer desperation, knowing the answer in advance.
‘Not in a while. The silly cow.’
Another dead end there, then. Throw me a fucking bone, would you?
Feeling frustrated, embarrassed, and a little ashamed of my lineage, I decided on a new tactic; avoidance.
‘Just off to the loo.’
I stood quickly, not bothering to wait for a response as I was certain I would not be interested in his opinion of my weakness of bladder, and headed away, into the same lavatory as on that first night wondering if, this time, when I emerged, another fight would be in full swing, though I doubted it.
It was too early.
I headed for a cubicle and locked the door behind me, sitting straight on the toilet lid, not bothering to lift it, no interest in the facilities on offer, simply there as sitting in a tiny box filled with the acrid stench of piss was preferable to spending another moment in the presence of that man.
‘Just wait a couple of minutes,’ I told myself. ‘Build your defences up again. You can endure this.’
I had already been with him for forty five minutes so, in another fifteen I felt my obligation would have been fulfilled. An hour a month was the minimum limit I set myself, and I was near to achieving it.
I chewed my fingers as I waited.
I left the toilet, feeling slightly awkward. I had spent longer than I had planned in the lavatory, the psyching up process requiring more mental energy than I had anticipated so that now I felt I had stretched social conventions beyond breaking point. As I passed through the toilet doorway, I noticed that my father was not alone. Two men, strangers to me, sat with him, and all eyes turned in my direction as I approached the table. I looked from one to the other, taking in the new arrivals, noting two things instantly: their shaven heads and their sheer size. My father’s face was set in stone and, despite my earlier observation, now there was activity in those eyes, a burning rage that I could detect even from a distance. I took my seat opposite the three men, awaiting introductions, though none were forthcoming. To break the silence, I introduced myself as The Son, perhaps hoping for a flicker of amusement, perhaps hoping for anonymity in the title, though unable to read anything from the blank expressions the two strangers wore.
‘Is it true?’
It was my father who spoke first, a gravel to his voice, deeper than usual, sounding as if he were trying to restrain himself somehow, though restrain himself from what it was hard to know for certain.
‘What?’ was all the eloquence I could muster, the vagueness of the question confusing me.
‘Your new book,’ he expanded. ‘Is it true?’
I frowned back at him, though if I were hoping for more clarity I was to be disappointed. After a few seconds of silence, I replied.
‘Well, I’m writing a new book, if that’s what you mean. The last one only sold about a thousand copies, so just about covered a weeks rent…’
I allowed the sentence to trail off, pitching my tone to ‘knockabout comedy,’ expecting at least a flicker of mirth, though instead my father’s eyes blazed with fury.
‘Are you ashamed of me?’ he asked, catching me completely by surprise, the voice in my head screaming ‘yes’ though etiquette required an altogether different response.
‘I asked you a question, young man,’ he said coldly, his tone of voice becoming menacing now, a trait I had not heard manifest since my teenage years.
‘What the hell is this?
It was a genuine question as, for the life of me, I had no idea what was going on.
‘The gays,’ was his response, eyes locked on mine, as if those two small words explained everything.
‘The what?’ I sounded like an imbecile, and I knew it, though was powerless to do anything about it.
‘In your new book. The gays.’
Suddenly I knew what he was talking about though, far from providing explanation, the truth spun my mind even further off kilter.
I stammered a little. ‘Well, there are two gay characters in my book. Is that what you are asking me?’
He slammed a fist down onto the tabletop, the two glasses still present jumping off the surface, lager slopping from the top.
‘And do they….?’
He left the sentence open ended, unable to bring himself to say the words, the revulsion he felt smeared across his features at the very thought he was trying to communicate.
It was my turn to become angry, in part due to the narrow-mindedness of my own father, but also at the intrusion of privacy this conversation represented. I had shown the new novel to no-one, yet here I was being grilled about it, having the content sneered at, as if these dullards had the right to sneer at anything. The only way that my father could have discovered the nature of the narrative was for someone to have broken into my home, without my knowledge as no break-in had been evident, to read the damn thing. There was no other explanation, despite the lack of logic.
‘How dare you,’ I shouted back at him. ‘You’ve broken into my flat.’ It was an accusation, not a question, and I took his lack of denial as proof positive.
‘I’ll write whatever I see fit,’ I challenged, eyeing him coolly across the table, ‘And if I find out someone has broken into my flat again, I’ll call the police, father or not.’
Without breaking eye contact, he spoke again, though the words were not aimed at myself.
‘Do what needs to be done.’
The Neanderthals moved and, though they were fearsome in size, they were cumbersome, allowing me just enough time to spring to my feet before they reached me, knocking the chair out from behind me, retreating from the table, unable to comprehend what was happening. The two giants approached, trying to catch me in a pincer movement, though I saw their intent instantly. Something jarred against the top of my thighs and I knew I had reached the pool table. Spinning quickly, I jumped onto the tabletop, one of the advancing men grasping at my ankle, though I twisted sharply, left, right, and broke free of his grip. I moved forward on the baize, half crouched, my trailing hand grabbing hold of a discarded cue, launching it backwards, satisfied as I heard a grunt from one of the thugs, clearly hurt by the missile. I reached the far end of the table and dropped back to ground level, breaking into a sprint now, ducking beneath the swing top section at the end of the bar, into the service area. I dashed through a short corridor and found myself in the lounge, an area seldom used by regulars, though there were one or two punters, one of whom looked at me expectantly as if he thought I were there to serve him a drink. Instead, in a manner less athletic than my description may suggest, I vaulted over the bar counter and into the lounge proper, bolting for the door. I was swift, too swift for the ungainly pursuers who had guessed my intent and had headed to cut me off, though too late. Out of the lounge, now, and out of the pub altogether, sprinting down the road, the brutes hard on my heels.
The breath in my lungs felt like lava. I had not exercised like this in years, though the fear of what was behind spurred me on, prevented me from quitting, though what was I meant to do? Though I could outrun them in the short term, eventually I would be compelled to stop and, alone, on their patch, I was vulnerable. I had only one choice, and that was to head to the one member of my family who lived in the vicinity, the woman my father had just ten minutes ago dubbed a ‘silly cow.’ Hard to believe that the slight had been uttered so recently, so much had happened since, none of it making any sense, but I knew it was the truth. I broke right, checking once, twice, before crossing the busy street, a blare of horns greeting my arrival on the roadway, though I reached the other side without incident. Though tiring, the house was only a couple of hundred metres away, so I redoubled my efforts, sure that the men behind me would not dare enter a private property in the middle of the day. I had a good twenty metres on them already and, by speeding up, hoped to gain ten further still.
My arms pumped at my sides, swinging in sympathy with the motion of my body, the legs doing most of the hard work, the lungs still aching in protest.
I reached the front door of the house I sought and knocked furiously, a dogs bark from the next door terrace greeting the rattle of the letterbox as my knuckles struck wood twice, three times. I heard movement from within, then the door swung open and I bolted past the old woman, out of the street, urging her to close the front door quickly and she duly complied.
‘What on Earth’s the matter?’ she asked, concern in both voice and eye as she returned to the living room where I paced anxiously back and forth, half expecting the thugs giving chase to simply break down the front door and come for me regardless but, when nothing happened for twenty, perhaps thirty seconds I began to ease.
‘What’s going on?’ she asked, a calmness to her tone that helped enormously.
‘It’s Dad,’ I managed through great lungfuls of air. ‘He’s sent them after me.’
‘Your father? What’s he done now?’ she asked, the lightness of her tone indicating she had no comprehension of the gravity of the situation but then, why would she?
‘Let me put the kettle on, then you can tell me what’s wrong.’
I made to protest, but stopped myself before a word was spoken, knowing that she would not rest until we both had a cup of tea in hand and, besides, the couple of minutes it would take her to make a brew would allow me a little more time to recover. I sat myself down on the armchair in front of the coal fire, embers glowing in the base despite the heat of the afternoon. I heard the clank of crockery and knew that she was getting her best china out, before another sound came, one that had me sitting bolt upright.
‘What are you doing, Nan?’ I called.
‘Just putting Tom out,’ she replied. Tom, the huge ginger cat that had become her constant companion since Grandad had passed away, allowing me to relax once more, though foolishly. Out of the corner of my eye I detected movement and, turning in that direction disbelieving, I watched as the two giants that had pursued me walked into the room, calmly, knowing they had me now and there was nothing I could do, their enormous size too much to overcome in this confined space.
‘You shouldn’t have run.’
It was Nan’s voice, advising me from the kitchen.
An obvious question and all I could think to ask, though I was not referring to my flight from The Cottage at all, more the sense of betrayal from my own flesh and blood. Acting on nothing but instinct, I reacted, surprising the huge men, one hand lashing out, picking up the fire poker that, until that moment, I had not even consciously noted, yet I had detected its whereabouts somehow. Springing from the seat I rushed the nearest of the men, taking him by surprise, the poker held aloft, aimed squarely at his face. One of his fat arms swept up his chest, but too slow and, before he could respond further I had speared him like a salmon, the lethally sharp point of the poker piercing his eyeball then, with a thrust that carried all of my weight, digging in further, bursting through the rear of the socket and into what passed for his brain.
His knees gave, and he dropped to the floor, lifeless.
I started to shake, shocked that I had taken a life, no matter the circumstance, the other gargantuan more wary now. Then, another sound, that of the front door being opened from outside, and into the room three new arrivals, two of them of the same ilk as the thugs already present, along with my father.
Weaponless, penned in, I felt my bladder relax and pissed myself where I stood, even as the three brutes moved in on me.
‘Why?’ I called again as they forced me to my knees, one of them taking me around the throat and forcing my head back so that I was compelled to look upwards and, mind racing, I felt the moment my sanity snapped. In my field of vision, the faces of my father and my Nan loomed into view, both smiling down at me as if this were the most normal thing in the world.
‘We don’t hold with these new fangled ideas,’ explained my father. ‘You’re a working class boy. Why couldn’t you be happy with that? Why couldn’t you be just like us?’ he continued, before the woman chipped in.
‘Write about what you know.’
My neck snapped.
26th February 2010