I’d concealed the brogue prior to it. Let me speak for a few minutes; I won?t be long and I need to tell this.
Every bloke in my bar as a rule tries – demonstratively – to act tough, though of course they never have to go through with anything. There is equilibrium to my place: hard bloke attracts hard bloke, whom they already know to be hard, which means the threshold of threat rises significantly, which means the margin of who constitutes a threat widens. You could hypothetically find all people at my place, under the eyes of motherfuckers who scare the dank into their clothing and whose eyes become the pixels of your retinal cones, bluish green (with that one pin-prick of white that helps you understand) you see from looking into a dark corner.
That’s why I say could: no one comes here, except my tough boys, or very few people at least. Maybe equilibrium is the wrong word – but it peaks at a certain level; the tough guys get as tough as they can get without bad sorts getting in (though there are bad sorts, I suppose I mean incriminating bad sorts, the bad sorts that aren’t tolerated, the ones followed by D-notices, agencies, questions and hush). The boys eye one another – these men they’ve admitted and jeered, because they were indistinguishable from themselves in nearly every minute, transient, liver-spotted (I josh them about, started a tally, and the boys liked it, for a week before turning sullen with their lagers, vodka shots and Abbots, before turning silent, staring at me…) way – and see a desert instead of however many individual, bloody atomic grains. That’s the thing about equilibrium – once you reach it with them, you get scared – their frames look and feel too good to be true. Then threat isn’t measured in magnitude, but kind.
This is why they tensed – I heard them rustle, like leaves of unsolicited murmurs and half-involuntary movements – when the Cunt in the filthy trenchcoat walked in. No, I’m being disingenuous. What they noticed first was that he was smiling and had a bandage around his left hand, covering where the thumb ought to be, and that his shirt was white. It looked like he’d forgotten a jacket sometime in the eighties, thrown the coat on anyway and had slept in it since. He looked at me from across the warehouse space of the floor. “Smoke, squire?” he called loudly – intentionally so, reaching inside his coat pocket with his left, before stopping, then continuing slightly awkwardly with his right – placing the fag in his mouth while fumbling with a flame-warped lighter.
He turned to the boys – they were rigid along the wall – looking on the verge of speech, then lit up and turned away from them. This action didn’t seem premeditated, which stilled the boys further. Jacob – he of the black singlet and lump where he fell as a child in Brixton onto hard stone – clenched, though I can’t remember what. I moved to point out the council anti-smoking statues, which I had installed as lip service, and as a concession so they’d ask no more of ours, y’know?
The Cunt narrowed his eyes, another fag (Silk Cut – I smelt it on him) in his mouth already.
“Ah – m’Sorry Mate – wasn’t aware this was a posh joint, n’all.” He was still grinning, and exhaled. His voice sounded local, strained, as if it were a bad mask for places he’d been and not wanted known. He spoke with the touch of inaccessible, boarded-up doors. There was a hint of Scouse.
“You look like a badly drawn Sting, guv,” I said. It’s the line of introduction I use to patrons – rib them, upset their footing, make sure they know the fluidity of terms here, introduce doubt into them – watch the doubt go bad or not. The Cunt just looked at me – that’s the thing: that was enough to call it – he knew when he responded.
“Can’t all be John Travolta, Pugsley,” he dropped the butt into a tankard, an ornament from the ex-proprietor’s establishment. He’s dead now – sod – or as near as you can get in an NHS bed in Putney.
“Or maybe Val Kilmer,” he straightened, “no-one’s heard of him in this day and age either.” I didn’t want to look in his eyes. I thought it would be like a Kelpie: you don’t realise you’re stepping off the pebbles into the foam; you’re scared of the sea, can deal with it until you’re waist high in it and the enormity breaks over you like a wave. Like cities – like fucking London: bigger on the inside.
The first impression I got though was that The Cunt was worn, frayed as his coat.
“You troubling our Ed?” Jacob and the boys said from behind him, though none of them made any first movements. Like they’d just materialised there after a certain point.
“Ed’s a troubling gent,” he replied, “more trouble than he’s worth. Literally,” he blew smoke, which somehow he had managed to keep in his lungs, “and figuratively.”
I’m remembering now the last time there was a real upset in my place. It was a Yank, or an Aussie, of course – same difference – and their drinking crew, that wanted me to play ‘Tai-mekan-Geru Down Spot’ – which I’d assumed was a Vietnam ballad or something – through our PA so they could have a balls-up. There’s also a well-known anecdote about Reggie Kray and the photographer David Bailey from the 60s, when a boisterous fan got up in Bailey’s face about having a pic taken – standing right to the left of Reggie Kray – drunk and not giving a toss. Reggie Kray is said to have stood up, straightening his immaculate tie as if preparing for a personal shoot. Then he punched the fuck – knocking him against the nearby piano. Bailey – flappable, shocked – says:
“Reggie you tosser! The git was a fan, I get this shit all week; I could handle it!” Reggie looks sheepish at him and replies: “to be honest, Mr Bailey, I’ve been having me eye on that geezer for the whole night. He was eating my sandwiches!” Combine those two stories – right? – reflect on their implications, and infer what might happen in such an event. Then know that nobody did anything; they stood there – intentionally? – Not moving, looking at this unbelievable, queer Cunt watching them, good hand reaching for another ciggie. After a while he spoke.
“Let me tell you about London. A mate of mine told me this; he lives in the Underground, or is the Underground – I don’t have a clue, I’ve never asked him – but he said that London is like a puddle. Big, dirty, deep thing that all these little channels and rivulets trickle into. And it all floats: more water more puddle and more space for the e.coli to wiggle about in, to the point that it overflows and the thing normalises. Inflation, like. No stagnancy, no poison. But the channels are also London.” There was a shudder, though no one knew who made it. The Cunt looked up; a smile – but also something else.
“This is probably where the analogy breaks down. A puddle can’t grow for bloody ever. It all comes back in a big crunch. Scratch that – ,” he swerves as Jacob finally, almost desperately – as if he knew what was coming – throws a haymaker at him and knocks himself out on the table edge. The boys are rooted as the Cunt kneels and pats Jacob on the cheek; his finger nails smelling of iron.
“More like a boil: relieving the pressure, ennit? And I’m getting a lot of hostility here?” They snap. They grab the Cunt and haul him to the middle of the disco floor. One of them slows down in transit to punch the back of his head, only clipping his temple, one of his nails gashing the nape. They throw him onto the floor and start kicking. A few get down, slipping, to concentrate the force of their blows. Vertical not horizontal: more horizontal space, more dispersal. I was behind the bar, not taking my eyes off it; I just remember feeling happy for my boys, almost thankful they had something to do. Then I noticed the Cunt hurrying on all fours, drawing a circle, touching the four sides of the wood around my boys like the Vitruvian Man. I shouted, screeched at them, and dredged up Gaelic I didn’t know I still had. They paused, looking down at the pulped Jacob; their boots caked with pink bits, their fists opening slowly and limply. The Cunt stood on the outside. Looking. Just. Looking. He didn’t blink.
“I offer you this dead man, and his murderers,” he said calmly, with no inflection. They always say there’s ozone when something like this happens. There wasn’t. Just a sound like rushing water.
The floor was spotless, like a Kray twin’s tie. The Cunt took out a cigarette and fumbled lighting it. His hands began to shake and he smiled again then stopped, as though remembering something half-thought or half-believed. He was suddenly sixty. He turned to me.
“Devil’s own job, trying to find a posse of killers on a Wednesday night. Surprised it went as well as it did.” I must have had an expression on my face, because he offered me one of his Silk Cut. “Smoke and Mirrors, squire – can’t be having too much of it. I can make you forget if you want.” I must have mouthed something about the boys, their family, how Jacob was living with his mum on benefits and was planning on moving to Shoreditch. “I know,” the Cunt responded.
When I came to, the Cunt had left – place didn’t even smell, it was flawless. It could have been the half-hour before opening, everyone yet to arrive. I was sick behind the counter. Then I phoned you to see if everything was ok, that you were ok. I can hear you over the line; you’re not sure what to make of this, and anyway it’s past 4 am. I just wanted to make sure is all. That’s all.