by John Sawney
Bing Crosby comes on the jukebox and now them silly little gets round the pool table are carrying on again, pissed out of their heads, singing along about how they’re dreaming of a shite Christmas. It’s just winding every bugger up now, but Arthur dun’t say owt. He just skulks behind the bar like he dun’t want the hassle. I’m just about to get up and say summat meself, but then them big heavy doors come banging in like they’ve been kicked open by the coppers. Only it in’t the coppers, and every bugger knows it. It’s Bert Green.
There he is in the doorway with the snow all blowing in round him, and now the whole bloody place is freezing cold and quiet as the grave. Nobody says a peep. Every bugger’s staring down into their pints like they’re trying to read the small print on the beer mats underneath.
Bert Green’s barred. He’s always been barred.
But there he is, standing there like a bloody great big statue, eyes glazed over, face all red. He must have been at it all day. Now he’s walking in and he’s got a holly wreath in his hand, all tattered, like he’s ragged it off someone’s front door. He slams it down on the bar and his knuckles are all torn up and covered in dried blood. Maybe it’s from the cold. Probably not.
‘Happy fuckin Christmas,’ he says, spraying spit all over the shop. Arthur dun’t say owt. It was Arthur that barred him.
‘I says happy Christmas.’
Arthur looks up. ‘Happy Christmas, Bert. Pint, is it?’
Bert nods and slams a tenner down on the bar next to the holly wreath. ‘And me change in twenties for the table.’
Them silly little gets are nowhere to be seen now. It looks like Bert’s got the pool table to hisself. He picks up his pint and takes a big swallow. You can see half of it trickling down his beard from where I’m sat. He jangles the little pile of twenties in his big scabby fist.
‘Who’ll have us a game?’
The fine print on them beer mats must be right interesting, cos every bugger’s still reading them.
‘I says who’ll have us a game?’
You never knew anyone who could shout like Bert Green. Me teeth are rattling in me head from it. He’d have made a belting sergeant-major if he could stay off the piss for five minutes. You can see it’s gonna get nasty any minute now. Any minute and he’ll grab for one of them pool cues and wrap it round some bugger’s head.
Arthur’s got to say summat, for Christ’s sake.
Then there’s a peep from the end of the bar. Young lad on a stool, little blond fella, scraggly beard. Bert spins round on him.
The lad clears his throat.
‘I said I’ll have you a game.’
I recognise him now—it’s Arthur’s nephew, the posh one that went away to university trying to be a doctor. Name’s Gareth, or Gavin, or Kevin, or summat. Bit of a nancy. Only now he’s had a skinful and he thinks he’s ten men.
Bert looks down at him, then shoves twenty pence into his hand.
‘Fire on, then.’
The lad walks over—shuffles, staggers over—to the pool table and racks them up. You can see right off that it’s gonna end up bad. Bert lets him break and he pots two. He pots another, then another, then just barely misses. It’s Bert’s go now, but he’s all over the shop. It’s all he can do to hit the white. The young lad’s bladdered as well, like, but by Christ he can handle a pool cue. He dun’t see the look on Bert’s face. He dun’t realise the danger he’s in.
Let him win, I’m saying to meself, trying to push the words into the lad’s head with me mind. It’s no good. The lad’s obviously not one of them psychic Uri Gagarin fellas off the telly. Now he’s on the black, and Bert still han’t potted a bloody thing. The lad nominates his pocket and pots it. Now he’s grinning his head off, holding out his hand to Bert Green like he han’t just signed his own death warrant.
‘Best of three?’ he says.
His little hand disappears into Bert’s great big scabby fist, and it looks like Bert’s just gonna squeeze it and break every little bone. But he just leans in, gritting his teeth.
‘I’ll be seeing you.’ He says it all quiet, like, but there in’t a sound in the whole pub and you can hear him clear as a bell. The smile disappears right off the lad’s face. He’s realised. Bert shoves the pool cue into his hands and starts stamping towards the door, face like thunder. He stops at one of the tables where these two fellas are looking down, trying not to notice him. He grabs hold of the table and just tips it over. Their pints smash all over the floor, and then Bert’s gone with the big heavy doors swinging shut behind him, out into the snow.
Now you’ll not believe this, but Bert Green in’t a bad fella. Not really. If you meet him when he’s sober, then he’s the nicest fella you’ll ever meet. Only, you won’t meet him when he’s sober. The problem’s his wife. Everyone knows she’s the town bike, that she’s had all sorts in the house while he’s out at work. It’s enough to drive anyone mad. Bert can’t control her, so now he’s stopped trying to control hisself an’all.
There was the fella he killed that time, the one who won the card game. Bert beat his head against the pavement till it cracked open like a bloody Easter egg. Someone took the fella to hospital—tried to, anyway. The car hit a wall, and his head got banged about all over again. All the king’s horses and all the king’s men… well, you know. Sub-durum-homo-summat, they called it. Brain bleed, I call it. Only they couldn’t prove it was Bert that killed him, rather than the car crash, so they dropped the murder charge and did him for aggravated assault. Back out in eighteen months. Redebilitation, they call it. Bollocks, I call it.
But he’s not a bad fella when he’s sober.
So now it’s the next day, and everyone’s acting like nowt ever happened. Them three dickheads are round the pool table again, singing about how Frosty the Snowman had a carrot up his bum. Arthur’s skulking behind the bar again, not saying owt. The young lad’s sat on his stool at the end of the bar, drooping over his pint like a broken scarecrow. Now I’m wondering what’s his story, why he’s sat here in his uncle’s pub in the middle of the day and not bossing people round in some hospital somewhere.
Right, I’ll bloody ask him.
‘Eh up, son,’ I says. He looks up like he dun’t know me, and maybe he dun’t. His eyes are all bloodshot and slitted up. His face looks like he’s borrowed someone else’s skin for the day, and it dun’t fit him too well.
‘Hello.’ He’s got a right croak on him today.
‘How come you’re in here?’ I says to him.
‘In the pub. How come you’re not in some hospital somewhere bossing nurses round and pulling in a big wage?’ He looks at me like I’m a bloody head-the-ball, but I’ll not let it put me off. ‘Well? You’re a doctor, aren’t you?’
He kind of smirks, looking half asleep. ‘Of philosophy.’
‘Not medicine. I can’t help you with your dementia or erectile dysfunction. Sorry.’
He shakes his head. ‘Would you like a drink?’
‘Eh… er… aye, thanks son. Half a mild when you’re ready. Much obliged.’
He in’t a bad lad after all. Arthur plonks me drink down in front of me, but no money changes hands. The lad dun’t even look up. I feel like I should make some conversation while I’m here, cos he certainly dun’t look up to it.
‘So what’s a doctor of philosophy do then?’ I says to him.
He manages a smile. ‘Sign on, mostly. Maybe the odd shift at Sports Direct if you did well in your thesis.’
So he’s a benefits scrounger. Bloody hell, that explains it all.
‘You’re not working then.’
He waves a hand towards them three daft gets round the pool table. Now they’re singing about shepherds washing their socks by night.
‘Is anyone in here working? I guess you must be retired.’
‘Oh, aye,’ I says. ‘Long since now.’
‘And what did you do before?’
I’m just about to tell him to mind his own bloody business when them doors come banging in again, and you don’t need to look round to know who’s standing there. He’s got another bloody holly wreath from somewhere. Arthur takes one look at him and disappears into the back. Gaynor’s working the bar today as well, though, and she’s having none of it.
‘Get out of it, Bert,’ she says. ‘You know you’re barred.’
Bert dun’t even look at her, just mutters ‘shut yer gob’ and makes straight for me and the lad. Only he in’t interested in me.
‘Think you’re clever, do you?’ he says, whacking the lad round the head with the holly wreath. ‘Eh?’
You forget how big Bert Green is till he’s stood next to you. The pub seems to shrink around him.
‘Leave the lad alone, Bert,’ I says. ‘He’s doing no harm.’
‘Half a mild for this un, Gaynor,’ Bert shouts, and I feel me teeth rattle again. He’s not such a bad fella, really.
‘I told you, Bert, you’re barred. Now sod off out of it.’
He drops the wreath on the floor and prods the lad in the ribs. ‘You. Outside.’
The lad can barely lift his head. He manages to croak something about not wanting any trouble, but Bert just drowns him out.
You know in films, when a prisoner marches along at gunpoint all quiet and obedient, even though they know they’re going to die anyway? Or when they walk the plank and end getting torn to pieces by sharks just cos someone’s pointing a bloody sword at them? I always thought that was daft. But that’s what happens here. The young lad dun’t make a fuss, or try and run away. He just gets down off his bar stool and lets Bert Green march him out into the snow. Summat tells me there’s gonna be another sub-mural-heemer-toner any minute now.
Gaynor’s got the phone to her ear, looking all serious.
‘Yeah, can you get a police car to The Camel Inn on Albion Street, please? Soon as you can. It’s Bert Green again; he’s about to make a right mess of this lad outside…’
I follow them out. It’s bloody freezing, and I’m not really supposed to take me drink outside, but I can’t just sit in there while this is going on. At first I just see two sets of footprints in the snow—big uns and little uns—and then I spot the pair of them on the other side of the road, near the bookies. Bert’s dragging the lad about by the scruff of his neck, and now he throws him back against the wall. He cocks his right and throws it, but the lad dodges out of the way. Bert swings again and misses. And again. Christ, this lad’s bobbing and weaving like Joe Frazier. Trouble is, he in’t hitting like Joe Frazier…
Finally Bert swings a big right into the poor lad’s guts, and he just drops like a sack of shite. Sinks to his knees, doubles over, and throws up all over the pavement. I’ve never seen so much sick come out of one person. It’s melting the snow. Bert takes a few steps back, like he’s trying to stop it getting on his shoes, then he takes a few more steps. I realise what he’s doing, and I start to feel a bit sick meself. He’s taking a run up to kick him in the head. Like it’s the eightieth minute of the Challenge Cup, and he’s about to score the two points that’ll bring the silver home. The rotten bastard.
‘Don’t do it, Bert!’ I shout, but he’s already started running. He brings his right leg up behind him—he was a bloody good scrum half when he was younger, was Bert Green—then he skids off at a funny angle and his feet slide out from under him. For a moment he seems to hang in the air, like in a cartoon, and then he lands with a big thump in the road. There’s an awful sound as his head hits the kerb. Like a cricket ball hitting the wood. Now there’s a big pink halo spreading out in the snow around his head, and the young lad is starting to get to his feet. He looks like he dun’t know where he is.
I step out onto the road, mixing in my footprints with theirs in the snow.
‘Here you go lad,’ I says, and I hand him my half a mild. He nearly spills it all over hisself, he’s shaking so bad. In the end he manages to take a sip.
‘How do you drink this stuff?’ he says, pulling his face. ‘It’s horrible. What happened?’
‘Bert slipped in your sick. I think that means you won.’
I look down at Bert. One of his eyelids is fluttering, but that’s the only thing moving now. The lad gulps down the last of the mild.
‘Won…’ he says, rubbing his head. ‘Won what?’
‘Best of three.’
Now I can hear the police sirens on the wind. I hope there’s an ambulance an’all. You might say that Bert got what he deserved, but even so, I hope they can do summat for him. He han’t had a nice life. I hear the doors go again behind me—them three soft gets have followed us out from the pub. Paper crowns on their heads. They obviously han’t seen the state of Bert, cos they burst into song, swaying together from side to side with their arms round each other’s shoulders.
We three kings of orient are
One in a taxi, one in a car
One in a scooter, picking his hooter
Smoking a big cigar!