Chapter 5 of 'The Quay'

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Fresh discoveries and surprises are coming thick and fast for Ken and his comrades now. His love life is on the up but his unknown antagonist continues to raise their game. Cue social awkwardness, drunk bankers, shocks in the attic, clattering in the kitchen and an enigmatic new Chef....

CHAPTER FIVE

Goodness, what a difference a week can make. I struggled to picture my first Monday at "The Pulton Arms" as I pottered around a Crow's Nest warm enough for me to be going about my chores dressed only in t-shirt and boxer shorts. And there was now sufficient room to swing a generously-proportioned cat after my concerted effort over the last few days to get rid of the extensive collection of junk. I'd filled one of the huge bins in the yard and Pat had graciously thrown some in with the trade waste from the kitchen work. There remained some pieces of furniture, various ornaments and other knick-knacks that I didn't feel right getting rid of in case they had meant something to Aunt Maddy, even though they were certainly not to my taste. My first thought had been to stash it all in one of the spare bedrooms but then remembered I had the loft at my disposal so over the weekend I had gone exploring.

The stairs in the hallway led up to a hatch which enthusiastically dispensed a cloud of dust onto my face as I pushed it open above my head; evidence if evidence were needed that nobody had been up there for a long while. I flicked the light switch just below the hatchway and overhead a bulb came to life, then immediately died with a loud 'plink' and all was dark again. Remembering there was a torch in the bar which we kept handy in case of power cuts, I retrieved that then headed back up the stairs. Poking my head through the hatch, I swept the torch around to see what this particular Aladdin's Cave had to offer. It was a big old space, extending up into the rafters but as I'd anticipated, it was almost entirely rammed with the same sort of miscellaneous car boot sale fodder that I'd cleared from downstairs. More furniture, more bar equipment, trunks and suitcases, piles of clothes and stacks of cardboard boxes that offered no clue as to their contents. The eclectic collection just went on and on, all coated with dust or curtained with cobwebs. I really wasn't too keen to go poking about but having spied a relatively clear space towards the back corner I decided to venture in, hopefully to verify that there was some room I could use for storage. The floorboards groaned loudly but felt sturdy enough underfoot. I slowly worked my way to the rear, all the while inadvertently collecting cobwebs with my forehead as I went. God I hated that feeling — once you've had cobwebs on your face you feel them all day, regardless of how many times you wash or stick your head in a blast furnace. So much stuff; I wondered if Aunt Maddy had ever thrown anything out; ever. It would take an age to go through it all but who knows what treasures, curiosities and enormous spiders I might unearth? On reaching the back corner, I was pleased to see there was indeed a cleared space that would easily accommodate the remaining bric-a-brac. Turning back to the hatch, the torchlight picked out a piece of furniture that stood out from its neighbours, apparently having been manufactured post-war. It was an aluminium television stand; something I could put to good use as the telly in the lounge was just sitting on the floor currently. Right my friend — you're coming with me. There were a couple of cardboard boxes sitting on top of it, one of which gave way at the bottom as I went to move it, disgorging its contents onto my feet with a loud clatter. Oh, arse. Looking down, I could see numerous plastic video cases. Kneeling to get a closer look, I was then presented with a fine collection of films from the 1980's. Before me lay "Ghostbusters", a couple of "Rambo"s, "The Jewel of the Nile"; all sorts. Okay maybe not a "fine" collection but a collection none the less. Jamming the torch in my armpit to free up both hands, I reached for "Fletch", really hoping the film was in the case as it was one of my favourites. But "Fletch" wasn't in the box. It was a VHS cassette alright, but it sported the title "Raiders of The Lost Ass" on its spine. Erm — what? The trend continued as I opened a few more cases: "Annie" turned out to be "An Orifice and a Gentleman" while "Footloose" offered up "Beverly Hills Cock 2". I sampled several more with similarly surprising and risqué results. I felt a little queasy when it occurred to me that I'd possibly unearthed Aunt Maddy's personal porn stash, but then decided it could have belonged to any one of the various flat dwellers that must have occupied The Crow's Nest over the years. I grabbed a handful of the videos and walked them downstairs together with the telly stand. They'd be a fun watch sometime if I could find technology old enough to play them on.

 

Overall, I was delighted with the progress we were making. The kitchen refurbishment in particular was progressing at a splendid pace: that boy Pat did not hang about. I'd also helped out here and there when tasks sufficiently menial enough for me to handle presented themselves. I'd carried out a quick site survey this morning on my way to the utility room to make my cuppa. Sure it was still a mess, but it was really coming on. Today was also the first time I'd been out of bed before anyone else showed up in the pub; astounding. Truth is, little persuaded me to leave my pit unless I really had to, and having revamped the bedroom environment and upgraded its trappings, there was even less incentive to rise and shine. But this morning I'd woken early and couldn't stop my brain whirring sufficiently to nod off again. I'd enjoyed a deep sleep beforehand mind, and spent a few virtual hours in the company of Morgan Freeman. He'd agreed to landscape my garden for free, but only if I could beat him playing Connect 4. I'd lost the first game but he sportingly agreed to make it the best of three (you know Morgan, he's no monster). But then I was suddenly awake; game over without knowing the outcome, but with a furry mouth that demanded refreshment. The Crow's Nest was still devoid of any sort of culinary facilities and with the kitchen refit well underway, the utility room had become our makeshift canteen. However, with a recently purchased microwave keeping Bernie and the kettle company, my meal options were now practically limitless. Alas the only thing that hadn't progressed over the last week was my pursuit of Jess's affections. After daily fly-bys of "Coasters" and a few full-blooded forays into the bar, there had been no sightings of her at all. I'd decided I would venture in again today and see if I could find out from her colleagues when/if she might be back. Okay, maybe a bit stalkerish, but I needed to know.

There was a busy lunchtime session ahead of us with a leaving do happening for someone from one of the banks in town. They'd called last week to let us know they had a department of around forty people visiting us today. This was serious trade for the time of year; bring it on. Keeping it 'business as usual' in the bar had been tricky while the work continued in the kitchen as if anyone needed to go to or from the cellar, store room or utility room they had to traverse a construction site. Plus, we had the issue of the mess and the noise finding their way into the bar. I have to say, all concerned did their utmost to make the best of the situation and the customers were very accommodating; some enthusiastic even, once it was explained why we were tearing the place apart. Fortunately, we were pretty much done with the tearing apart and would soon be starting the putting back together. All the old wall and floor coverings were gone and the ceiling was freshly skimmed and painted. Pat was now prepping for the wall cladding and vinyl flooring that he was confident would both be in place by the end of the week. In the meantime, I'd been doing my research on what else we needed to do or install to be ready — I'd bought myself a cheap laptop to do just that. There were plenty of requirements and accompanying legalese to wade through but so far I'd not come across anything that we’d struggle to comply with. Most of it was just common sense really — 'Don't wash your hands in the toilet'; 'Don't store venison and trifle in the same container' — that kind of thing. I thought about doing a bit more homework there and then but instead decided to get prepped for the session ahead.

 

J.D. turned up around ten, also keen to be ready for what might well be a lively shift. He was on form; as ever. 'Bloody hell you're up already! I suppose I'm now duty-bound to do all those things I said I'd do when Hell froze over.'

'Like what? Take a shower? Vote Tory?'

'Either; or watch "Mamma Mia".'

'No Halo today?'

'Left her with a friend for this shift; I worry she'll get trodden on when we're really busy.'

As much as I’d come to appreciate the daily banter with J.D., apart from pub business that was really our sole dialogue and it occurred to me that I still knew very little of what he did or who he was outside "The Pulton Arms". Not that he'd withheld such information: I'd just never asked. So I thought I would.

'Are you married J.D.? Or got a girlfriend?' His demeanour instantly clenched and darkened; I'd clearly touched a nerve. In an effort to keep things light, I added 'Or a boyfriend?' He didn't respond straight away, seemingly focusing his thoughts somewhere beyond the room and our conversation. Then he came back to himself and visibly relaxed.

'If you're about to proposition me, you should know I expect posh dinners and silk sheets. Right now, all I have is Halo, and that suits me just fine'. He smiled unconvincingly and something flashed across his expression that looked like remembered pain. 'Right, let's get weaving — we have bankers to inebriate!' And with that he was back to his usual self, and I was back to keeping things impersonal.

There was very little prep needed to be honest; J.D.'s routine at the end of the evening shift seemed to encompass everything required for the next day other than filling the ice buckets and slicing lemons. A few minutes later, he had unlocked the front door and adopted his standard pose leaning on the bar reading his paper. I felt I'd dropped a real clanger earlier so in an effort to make amends I ventured the usual tack. 'So what's happening in the world?'

He went through the charade of pretending to read. 'The World Health Organisation has declared bacon to be a super-food and Apple are working on a fully soluble iPhone to boost sales. The Uncle Ben's share price is in free-fall as a result.'

It appeared we were back to normality again; phew. Before I could ponder our earlier exchange further, Janine entered through the front door, wearing a very uncharacteristic, wholly serious expression. 'Morning chaps. Why are we for sale?'

I shared a blank look with J.D. then returned to Janine's concern. 'I'm not with you. We're not for sale.'

'Well there's two big fuck off posters out front that say otherwise. Look.' She walked out the door, with me and J.D. in tow.

We followed her to the kerbside then turned to face the pub. Either side of the front door hung a blue and white sign about a metre square, taped to the red-tiled fascia, one of which obscured the 'Welcome' board. The signs were identical, both blaring 'FOR SALE. ENQUIRE WITHIN', with a telephone number underneath that headline. And that was all; no estate agent's name, nothing. The three of us just stood there in silence, trying to apply some sense to what we were seeing. Then a shiver brought me back to reality (although it was a sunny morning it was still damn chilly and Janine was the only one of us wearing a coat). 'Well; I've no idea what this is about. Let's call that number and see if we can find out.'

'No need.' said J.D. 'It's our number.'

At that moment Pat emerged from the front door. 'There you all are. I know it's supposed to be a nautical theme but it's full-on Mary Celeste in there.' With only sombre looks in response, his good humour evaporated. 'What's going on?' I pointed at the front wall and he walked out and joined our group who continued to stare at it. 'I don't get it.' After scanning our faces, he could see we didn't get it either.

Of course it had to be Boat Bitch's doing but I couldn't yet grasp the "why?" Was it a joke? A wind-up? Or some sort of threat? With that thought I whirled in the direction of the SharpCrest yard, half expecting to see the woman herself standing there with binoculars trained on me so she could see my reaction and savour the fallout from her handiwork. J.D. also turned and followed my line of sight.

'You think it's her?'

Another shiver rattled through me. 'I'd put money on it. Come on; let's take them down and get back indoors.'

 

Once we'd removed the signs I shoved them in the yard by the bins. On the way back to the bar, I brought Pat up to date with the Boat Bitch story, after which he shrugged his shoulders and said 'Just call her and tell her to go do one.'

The office mob arrived about one and they were a lively crowd right from the off. I wondered how popular the guy or girl leaving truly was if their departure put this many people in such high spirits. On a Monday too. Their clear lack of regard for returning to work for the remainder of the afternoon was impressive as they were drinking like it was Friday and they'd just clocked off for the week. Later, I found out that they were the bank's Fraud Detection department and were indeed bound for the office later, though a number of them intimated that minimal real work would get done when they got there. Damn; I sure picked the wrong day to quit credit card cloning. I did my share of serving, especially during the initial rush, and really enjoyed the bustle and the camaraderie with J.D. and Janine. When things are quiet, bar work can be super-tedious but when it's full on, and you're working with a great team there's few jobs I've had that can beat it. Today’s revellers were mostly a young crowd with a couple of manager types who seemed in no less of a party mood than their colleagues, though they did make a fuss about their wine selection. My tolerance for wine snobs was slim, and these two were seemingly trying to put on a display of expertise to impress their subordinates. Our list was chalked on a blackboard behind the bar and they spent ages pointing at it and blathering. It's true we didn't carry a huge selection but from all their tutting and deliberation you'd think we offered nothing more than Blue Nun, Cisco Strawberry and Buckfast. In the end, they settled on a Pinot Grigio and ordered up a bottle, after which they made a show of the tasting whilst loudly broadcasting their critique. 'I'm definitely getting elusive notes of, ummm..... lightly roasted coffee beans and, ummmmm — Edam! Yes! Edam — you know; the cheese?' Oh right! I was thinking of Edam the steam-powered locomotive from the 1880s (tempted as I was, I didn't actually say it). Ah well: they were having fun, not hurting anyone and putting money in my till so what the heck; live and let live.

An hour or so into the session I served a young lady who turned out to be the woman of the hour yet seemed noticeably less wazzed than her colleagues but was clearly amped about something that she couldn’t wait to share. 'Hi! I'm leaving to have a baby!'

'Oh right. Cheerio — hope all goes well. Our maternity facilities are a bit lacking here anyway.'

'No I'm not leaving here yet; I mean I'm leaving the company to have a baby.'

'Ah I see.'

 

During the quieter spells of the shift, I did dwell on the morning's weirdness with the 'For Sale' signs. J.D. had actually answered a couple of phone calls since from interested parties asking for more information but he just told the callers that there had been a misunderstanding and there was definitely no sale. There had been zero sight or sound of Boat Bitch or her henchmen since her initial visit a week ago and I'd pretty much forgotten about it, having more positive matters to focus on. That being the case, the event seemed less significant now and I wondered if I'd just got the wrong end of the stick at the time. Like the sales office model, perhaps the signs were simply an obscure prank intended as nothing more than a humorous call back to our original conversation. Oh I don't know — I'll see what the rest of the guys think later.

The (mostly) sloshed bank people started finishing up around three and began to meander back to their office. There really wasn't much to clear up in the bar as we'd seen to that during the quieter last half hour or so. "Coasters" here I come.

I went upstairs to freshen up and change out of my beer splashed lunchtime outfit (I still hadn't been out to shop for a new wardrobe but I had mastered the washer/dryer in the utility room so I had choices — yayy me). In a moment of unbridled optimism and extravagance, I even splashed a bit of after shave on. Not that I only saved this for really special occasions, I was just getting low on the good stuff so was using it sparingly to save resorting to the second string selection which mostly comprised untried Christmas 'Gift Set' items that would probably repel a velociraptor with the munchies. Right — let's do this.

 

 As I left the pub, it struck me how nervous I wasn't. Maybe after my failed missions over the last few days, I really wasn't expecting to see Jess so there was nothing to be anxious about. Or perhaps I was just finding my feet more since I'd first arrived back in town and was generally more settled in myself. Actually, the lunchtime shift had helped in that regard as I'd felt comfortable and capable behind the bar and part of the team; not just a malingerer or hanger-on. J.D. had even given me a sincere 'Thanks for the help — nice job' when I told him I was popping out for a bit. As I walked, I started to formulate a question I could ask of the "Coasters" staff to try and establish when I might expect to see Jess without coming across as an obvious perv but after a few yards more, it became clear I wouldn't need one — she was there. I spotted her as soon as I reached the front window — she was standing behind the bar chatting to a colleague. No scanning the menu today and no window browsing — I walked straight up to the door like I owned the place and gave it a hearty shove. Luckily, I narrowly avoided skittling the woman who was just the other side of it on her way out. 'Woah sorry!' And then I faced that behavioural dilemma; the text book solution to which I've never discovered. Do you flatten yourself against the wall whilst continuing to hold the door open with your extended arm (which you hope can sufficiently overpower the self-closing hydraulics) so the person exiting can make their way past you? Or do you take yourself fully through the door and hold it open from inside the entrance, thus giving them entirely unobstructed egress? The first manoeuvre offers up the risk that they might brush against you and think you brazenly planned things that way. The second replaces that with the risk that they'll assume you're going to carry out the first and you end up colliding in the middle of the doorway as you both step forward. I went with the first option and my antagonist squeezed past me with a rather stiff 'Thank you', accompanied by a withering look which I interpreted as a warning that she was seconds away from reaching for her rape whistle. I'm a bit old school when it comes to what I believe to be proper and gentlemanly conduct, but sometimes I wonder if that has a place in society these days. If I hold a door open for a woman, is that now deemed an offensive gesture that communicates 'Oh you're clearly too girlie and frail to open that door yourself; allow me to heroically save you from your shortcomings.'? And if I don't, am I a sexist git or simply demonstrating my support for gender equality? It's a bloody minefield. Same in the bedroom — sometimes I feel I'd be on safer ground if before we got between the sheets, I began with a PowerPoint presentation that outlined my technique and my understanding of her expectations so we could iron out any mismatch between the two to avoid later disappointment. Then we'd go at it like chimps.

Anyway: with doorway debate and debacle behind me, I continued my purposeful journey to the bar. And there she stood, looking fabulous of course. I took in her look and the usual radiant smile and whilst both were still wonderful to behold, today I was a better match for them; sort of. Right: say something inspiring Ken. 'That really is a huge fish tank.' Oh not the fish again you utter tit. Quick, say something else before that registers. 'Anyway how are you doing? I haven't seen you in here for a few days.' No; dial down the stalker.

'Hi! It's Len isn't it? I've been off for a few days — dog-sitting at my Mum's house whilst she's been off enjoying some Winter sun in Dubai. Lucky mare.'

Ouch. 'It's Ken actually. Lucky indeed — why didn't you go along?'

'Oh God sorry — Ken. She doesn't trust anyone else to look after Monty so I never get an invite. It's okay; I get a change of scene and Monty is great company. Monty's my Mum's Great Dane by the way.' She went to continue but then paused for a second as if she'd given some secret away. 'Sorry excuse my waffling — what can I get you?'

'Waffling is fine.' I smiled. 'Waffle away. A glass of the house red please.' After a shaky start this was going well I thought. Also, there were only a few other customers in the place so the odds of keeping her attention were in my favour. She had her back to me pouring the wine (enviable curves etc.) but continued to chat.

'Monty's huge; and he's nine which is pretty old for a Great Dane.' She turned and placed my wine on the counter. 'We go walking on the beach but he doesn't have much energy so we can't go far but he loves it. So do I. Do you have pets?'

Straight away my mind projected an image of the two of us strolling hand-in-hand along the surf’s edge in some tropical paradise. I would have included Monty in the vignette but couldn't remember what a Great Dane looked like. 'I don't have any myself but my Manager has a pug which I'm getting to know.'

'What does he manage for you?'

'The pug? Nothing as far as I know.'

That raised a chuckle. 'Your Manager I meant.'

'We run “The Pulton Arms together”. The red-tiled building just a few doors down from here.'

'I know the place — who in Pulton doesn't? Wow! Really? Since when? Isn't that the oldest pub in the town?'

She seemed genuinely interested and (to my great delight) somewhat impressed. 'It certainly is. I took it over from my Aunt after she passed away back in December. I only moved in about a week ago so I'm still finding my feet.'

'You're not a local then?'

'Oh yes; Pulton born and bred — I relocated a few years ago in search of a job I could grow to loathe and a divorce-bound marriage. I did rather well; I found both.' As soon as the words were out, I regretted making it clear that I was at best a bit of a moaner and at worst a complete failure at life. Girl's love all that emotional baggage stuff don't they? Idiot.

'Ah well we've all been there — poor you though. Still, these things happen for a reason — maybe here is where you’re meant to be and events conspired to make that happen?'

Phew — she looked and sounded sincerely sympathetic so I didn't think I'd done too much damage. What did she mean though — what had she suffered? Loathsome job or failed marriage? Or both? I decided now wasn't the time to pry — keep it light for now Trickett. 'You could be right — it feels great to be back I must say. Are you from around here?'

'Yep I've always lived in Pulton. I've travelled a lot but never really wanted to settle anywhere else, even though it's not the town it was. It's all about the tourists these days and not much else which is a shame.'

Ah-ha — a fellow crusader potentially. We could join forces and save our beloved town! And then go at it like chimps. 'It's a real shame — too much money and influence in the wrong hands if you ask me.' I decided not to clamber fully onto my soap box at that point, still trying to keep the conversation upbeat. 'So what do you do when you're not brightening up "Coasters"?' Nice work: a compliment but a subtle one. It seemed to land well as she smiled again and leaned on the bar directly in front of me, bringing her a few inches closer. God she was lovely. I noticed her eyes for the first time; they were large, grey tinged with blue with long lashes. She had a roundish face with apple cheeks and a delicate nose that hooked everything up beautifully. And of course that smile. Actually she looked like she was smiling all the time, even when she wasn't.

'Well actually I'm one of those arty-farty types. I paint and draw; mostly local landscapes. Very occasionally, a miracle happens and someone buys one. And don't laugh, but I also do the odd bit of modelling.'

Damn: this was a tricky one. How to answer without coming across as a fawning twat whilst also making it clear I didn't find the idea at all preposterous? Okay; just keep things ticking over while you're working out a proper answer.

'What do you model?'

'I have a photographer friend who often just needs someone to prop up a scene — lean against a car, hold flowers, raise a glass; that kind of thing. And another friend who designs and makes her own clothes and sells them on-line who asks me to play clothes hanger from time to time.'

I decided not to try any specific tack at all and just speak my mind. 'To be honest, I'm not at all surprised. I think you're absolutely stunning.' I said it dead pan with no drama and no nudge-nudge wink-wink type overtones. She looked taken aback and her face flushed, but she didn't move away.

'That's very n..' and then she was drowned out by the massively unwelcome sound of my phone ringing out loudly from my pocket. For a second I wasn't sure if this intervention would save or damn the conversation at such a pivotal point but if only to stop the noise, I grabbed it. From the caller ID I could see it was J.D. Great timing my friend.

'Sorry Jess, it's the pub. I'd better take it.' Worried that there was some crisis afoot, I answered.

'Hi this is Ken.'

'Boss its J.D. Any chance you're close to home? The guy I had in mind for the Chef's job is in the bar. I called up and asked him to pop in whenever and he's just dropped by on the off-chance. He's a good 'un — I worked with him for a few years at "The White Lodge" in the New Forest. We got great feedback on the food all the time I was there. None of your highly-strung "artiste" type bollocks — he just gets on with it without the drama. The staff thought he was the nuts too.'

Part of me wanted to stay where I was but maybe I'd done enough damage for one day, and I really did want to keep the food service project moving forward. In something of a quandary, I made the decision. 'Okay, I'll be there in a minute.' I hung up and smiled apologetically at Jess. 'Duty calls I'm afraid — I need to go interview a Chef.'

She straightened up. 'How exciting! How do you do that exactly? I imagine there’s more to it than just asking them if they're good at cooking.' She was still beaming and still a little flushed so hopefully I hadn't over-stepped the mark with my earlier frankness.

'You know what? I've absolutely no idea.' With that I gave her my best smile then turned and headed for the exit. Just as I reached for the door handle she called out.

'Oh, you didn't touch your wine! Maybe I'll help myself to that and you can have a glass on me the next time you drop by. Reason enough to visit again I hope?'

Still gripping the door handle, I turned to face her. 'Super-models and free wine? I am so there.' And with that I opened the door and left (fortunately with nobody trying to enter at the same time; sod that ballet).

I was feeling rather effervescent after my encounter with Jess — the more I saw of her, the more of her I wanted to see. Yes of course she was off-the-charts attractive but she clearly had depth to her as well and I felt like I couldn't learn everything there was to know about her quick enough. And unless I'd completely misread the situation, she'd made a point of asking me to drop in and see her again. Self-doubt may take over later and try and persuade me that she was just being engaging to help ensure future custom, or to befriend another business she could borrow ice or change from. Or that she was in fact a colossal tart. But for now, the thought that she was genuinely into me was winning my spirits over. With a few springy steps, I was back in my pub.

J.D. was behind the bar chatting to someone who I assumed was my wannabee Chef. As I walked over he turned and I registered a familiar face, but one I couldn't immediately place. Roughly my age I guessed, he was tall and lean with a hawkish look about him courtesy of a thin face and a prominent nose. He was clean-shaven with shortish, slicked-back dark hair which emphasised the rather enviable structure of his face. 'Chiselled' I believe they call that look. He was dressed smartly in dark shirt, jacket and trousers and by comparison I felt scruffy, and not just in appearance — somehow I felt I was comparatively below par in all sorts of other areas. He reached out his hand and we shook; quite a soft hand-shake as it turned out but his hands were quite the reverse. By the hard, rough skin of his palms I could tell they were clearly used to serious graft. Maybe he was just going easy, having rightfully assumed me to be rather flimsy.

'Good afternoon Mister Trickett. I am Bruno Tyler — it's splendid to make your acquaintance, again.'

Again? I did recognise that voice from somewhere. And then it clicked. 'You're fish and chips! Sorry: the guy I mean. The other night. You served me.'

'Indeed I did. Many thanks for the appreciative note you left. I thought I might take you up on your kind offer of a drink. I also understand from J.D. that you may have an opening in your kitchen for a Chef?'

Over Bruno's shoulder, J.D. gave me a nod and wink which I took to be him re-affirming the recommendation he'd given me over the phone.

'We do. I'll show you the building site that's the kitchen in a minute but we're getting it ready to go as soon as we can. So what can I get you?'

'Just a mineral water thank you. Ice and lemon if you have it please.'

J.D. went to do the honours. 'Vino Boss?'

'Why not. Thanks J.D.'

'Grab a table and I'll bring them over.'

The bar was well populated which was good to see, especially with a lucrative lunchtime session already filling the till. We took a table in the corner which afforded us some privacy. As I plumped myself down on a chair with a creak and a clatter, Bruno slid noiselessly onto another then sat upright with his hands clasped loosely in his lap. There was an air of confidence about him and he appeared as calm as you like. I imagined there was probably very little that would put him in a flap, if anything. I felt like I was the one about to be interviewed.

'So Bruno. Sorry I didn't recognise you straight away, I was a little, well; shit-faced, the other night when we met.'

'It was no problem Ken. May I call you Ken? We all deserve to let our hair down and let off some steam from time to time. I was glad to be of service.'

'Yes, Ken, please. Well, I thank you again for looking after me. Without that meal to straighten me up I might never have made it home. Right now you could be looking out the window, watching the divers fishing my body out of the water after a lengthy search.'

'Your corpse would have taken some time to surface it's true. The water temperature at this time of year would mean that decomposition would have taken around a week to get underway. The cold slows the bacteria down you see so you wouldn't bloat as fast as you would had it been warmer. It also encourages your body's production of adipocere which is a soapy, waxy like substance created from fat that protects the flesh from rotting. Of course if we were in The Persian Gulf not Pulton, you'd pop up after just a few days.'

How did he know this stuff? I wasn't sure I wanted to know. 'Right yes; rather a grisly picture. The perils of drinking I guess.' Ironically, at that moment J.D. arrived with the drinks and placed them on the table. 'Thanks J.D. — you joining us?'

'No I'll mind the bar. I sent Janine on earlier and......   Simon won't be in for a while yet. Anyway, we can talk about Bruno later when he's gone and can't hear us.' They shared a knowing grin and off he went.

'Are you still at “Yardley's”?'

'I wasn't really "at" “Yardley's” as such, rather helping out an acquaintance who was short-handed for a few days whilst considering my next move. All due respect to a worthy business, but cod and chips is rather more of a lower-end challenge than that which I'm seeking.'

'Understood. So what are you looking for? Sorry, I've not had chance to get a heads-up from J.D.'

He took a sip of his water then looked into the distance as if weighing up his answer. Then he looked back at me. 'What I'm looking for is an opportunity to apply my skills with a fresh audience. A start-up venture if you will, which sounds very much like what which you have under development here. I enjoy my trade Ken, but I've grown rather weary of just trotting out the classics, service after service, and wish to flex my creativity further. I desire an employer who supports me and whom I support in turn, but one who appreciates that when it comes to the kitchen, I know best and lets me just get the fuck on with it without meddling.' This line he followed up with a winning smile but there had been some underlying steel to his tone. Also, the profanity stood out as something he would rarely utter which added to its impact. Plus, he never seemed to blink. Like; at all. I tried to get things back on (my) track.

I took a sizeable swig of my wine. 'Well, that sounds reasonable. You don't buy a dog and bark yourself do you? So give me some background. What took up your days before “Yardley's” need arose?'

He reached into a jacket pocket and passed me an envelope. 'These are references from the two restaurants I was employed by previously — the first as a Sous-Chef and the second as Head Chef, the latter being where I worked with our friend J.D. There are contact details for references included in both and I do encourage you to connect with them to find out more should you feel the need. Once you have reviewed the information to hand and researched me as you see fit, and after discussion with J.D. of course, should you feel I may be an agreeable fit for the culinary vision you have for “The Pulton Arms”, and once your kitchen is adequately serviceable, perhaps you would grant me the opportunity to come and cook for you? Prove my worth to you by way of a practical demonstration? After all; the proof of the pudding is truly in the eating.' He was still softly-spoken yet purposeful in tone and his choice of words.

Temporarily at a loss for an answer, I couldn't decide whether I was impressed by his self-assertive delivery or genuinely in fear for my life if I declined his proposition. He was utterly charming, yet chilling at the same time. Like some sort of aristocratic, butler hit-man. Okay; more wine. 'I like the way you go about setting out your stall Mister Ty..'

'Bruno; please.'

'Bruno. Thanks for the references; I'll look at them later. So have you spent all your working years at those two establishments or did you have a vocation before becoming a Chef?'

'Actually my restaurant career has been relatively brief to date. My first fifteen years out of school were spent in the Army.'

'Oh right. So you were an Army cook?'

'I was in the Army. I did undertake some cooking.'

This was rather vague for my liking but before I could press him for more detail there came a loud crash from the kitchen, followed by a range of loud expletives that could only have come from Pat. Before I (and the rest of the bar occupants) even really registered the disturbance, Bruno was on his feet and striding in its direction. Time for the kitchen tour then I guess. 'Sorry about the swears folks!' I shouted as I moved through the room. There was an accompanying 'Soz peeps!' from Pat which was met with laughter and shouts of 'Keep the noise down!' and similar from the amused, deeply unoffended punters. On reaching the kitchen, we found Pat at the top of a step ladder wrestling with a large LED light fitting, the cover of which had dropped to the floor but appeared to be in one piece. As did Pat fortunately. He looked at us sheepishly.

'Sorry guys. This thing's a right bastard — you need umpteen hands. Get an octopus with the right NVQ and you're laughing.'

'Pat this is Bruno; Bruno meet Pat. Bruno's interested in the Chef job.'

Pat gingerly took his hands away from the lighting unit which was hanging half-in and half-out of the ceiling recess. Once he’d decided it wasn't going anywhere, he stepped down and shook hands with Bruno.

'Hi. I know it looks a bit of a shambles at the mo but it's going to be a mint kitchen when it's done. Even with the pittance he's forking out for it.'

Bruno scanned the room quickly then looked up at the light fitting. 'I don't doubt it Pat. Might I assist you with that?'

'Sure.'

And with that, Bruno grabbed the screwdriver that Pat was holding and bounded up the ladder. Having spent a few seconds working out what was what, he gave the whole thing a twist and a shove which embedded it neatly in its home. Pat passed up the fixings and the cover and Bruno did things with the screwdriver then stepped down. It struck me how odd it was watching him work or move as he descended — he really didn't seem to make any sound and everything about him was fluid precision. He didn't seem bothered by the bits of plaster and the generous helping of dust that now adorned his smart jacket. 'There we go.' He passed the screwdriver back to a surprised Pat.

If Pat felt he'd lost a man test he didn't show it. 'Cheers!'

Bruno gave the room another look. 'May I ask what you have planned?'

I chimed in. 'Well right now we're getting the ceiling, walls and floor sorted then we'll worry about the fitting out.'

'Might I suggest you decide on the location for whatever extractor you have planned before you do any finishing in that respect? Otherwise you might find you end up having to bash holes in your new decoration.'

I knew we'd need an extractor but hadn't thought about placement as such. I'd guessed it would sit over the range but to be honest we didn't know if that was even going to be usable let alone where it would actually be placed or to where we'd vent it. Again, I was face-to-face with the harsh realisation that I didn't really know what the hell I was doing. 'That's a good shout; thanks Bruno. Anything else we need to be mindful of?'

Pat and I then spent another two hours with Bruno as he basically walked us through setting up a kitchen from scratch and all the food hygiene 'must-do's'. To say he knew his stuff was an understatement. He explained that when he was taken on as Sous-Chef after leaving the Army, his first kitchen was in a similar state and much of what he learnt, he learnt by way of the owners falling foul of several inspections before they got it right. He was all over everything — recommended food storage and handling processes, separate prep areas for different food types, food washing and hand washing facilities; he knew it all. By the time he was done, both Pat and I had a list of things to do and things to buy as long as my arm. And leg. There were issues I hadn't even known were issues that I had to address — staff training, keeping Halo out of the kitchen: it just went on and on. One piece of good news was that he declared the range as fit for use ('Actually that's a rather splendid bit of kit I must say gentlemen.') I didn't know how to thank Bruno. After what can only be described as an 'odd' initial chat, he'd unveiled himself as a fully-fledged Godsend. There was no need to check with J.D. — he'd already given Bruno his vote of confidence so I offered him the role there and then.

'Look Bruno; we've got a long way to go with the kitchen; further than I realised but thank you so much for educating us. How about when it's done, you come in and cook us that meal and if you're happy with the facilities and the deal on offer, we agree to give each other a three-month trial?'

'That sounds perfectly equitable Ken; it's a deal. If you'd like, I could drop by in a week or so to check on progress and we could also start to draft a menu.'

Balls; something else I hadn't even thought of yet — the menu. 'That would be marvellous, thanks.' After the last few hours it had become increasingly apparent that we needed Bruno more than he needed us.

After the time we’d spent wandering around and investigating all the nooks and crannies of our work in progress, we were all pretty filthy. 'Look do you need to wash up? You could use my bathroom upstairs?'

'No thank you Ken; I'll be just fine.' With that he took off his jacket and shook it out, then patted his shirt and trouser legs to detach what dirt he could. With his jacket back on, he ran his hands through his hair and then left, looking only slightly dishevelled, whilst me and Pat looked like we'd been run over. He looked at me, completely gob-smacked. 'Who the hell was that guy?'

'Erm — I don't really know. J.D.'s worked with him and I met him briefly the other night when he served me fish and chips for free when I was hammered. Then he turned up today and we spoke and I wondered if he might be Keyser Söze but then he turned out to be the Harry Potter of kitchen refurbishment and food handling.'

'Well, I'd keep him if I was you.'

At that point J.D. poked his head through the doorway. 'How did the interview go?'

'Very well; bit nervous though.'

'Guess he was just keen to make a good impression.'

'Not him, me. He's a bit intimidating at times.'

'Oh you'll get used to him.'

'I will — he's hired.'

'Good move! You're not as dumb as you look. Or sound. Celebratory drink?'

'Yeah go on. You too Pat — you've earned one.'

 

We spent a while bringing J.D. up to speed with Bruno's recommendations for the kitchen. He had a few questions but mostly just nodded sagely as if he'd expected nothing different. I did wonder what effect it would all have on the schedule, and the cost. 'What's all this going to do to the price Pat?'

'Well let's just say I'm really looking forward to parking my new Ferrari in the driveway of my luxury villa. In Monte Carlo. I'd have to move there 'cos you know; taxes and that.'

'Hell if it gets you out the country, just name your price.'

'I couldn't leave you really. Being around you makes me look so much better.'

'Any chance of a sensible answer sometime soon?'

'Spoilsport. I'll need to price up the extras but I don't think it's going to be too major. I'm more worried about the time to get it done. Could the budget stretch to another pair of hands?'

'I could help out further?'

'Yeah. No. I need someone that can do a bit more than stand there all day looking clueless while scratching their arse. No offence. One of the lads that does some work for me is spare at the mo. With him on board, I reckon we could be done by the end of next week. I was going to get him in one day anyway — fitting the new gate will be a two-man job when it arrives.'

Being up and running that soon was an appealing thought. Plus, if the work dragged on for too long Bruno might decide to sell his skills elsewhere. I was sure J.D. would want the disruption over sooner rather than later too. 'Go for it. Can you work all that out and let me know how much all in?'

'For sure. Let you know soon as. Another pint might help to grease the wheels.'

I gave him a refill. 'Cheeky bastard.'

J.D. then re-routed the conversation. 'So what about the 'For Sale' nonsense? What's up with that?'

What with all the excitement meeting Jess and Bruno, I'd almost forgotten about that strange episode. 'I really don't know. Just ignore it maybe? If she doesn't get a rise out of me, perhaps she'll drop the idea. If that's what she's trying to do in the first place. Maybe it was just a joke like that model I reckon she sent. A naff joke I'll grant you.  What do you guys think?'

'Like I said; call her up and tell her to get bent.' said Pat who then belched loudly enough to rouse Halo from her snooze. She lifted her head and looked at me and J.D. then decided there was nothing to get excited about and with a major sigh, went back to her dreams. 'Sorry. Better out than in. Or, you could hire a strippagram to crash her office with eff off painted on his arse. Actually you could do it yourself — you've got nothing to hide; unfortunately for you.'

'I'd let it go.' said J.D. 'Whether she's serious or joking or just playing mind games for whatever reason I wouldn't dignify it with a response. She's probably just got more spare money and time than she knows what to do with so thought she'd fill some of her day by messing with you. Maybe it's a subtle romantic gesture? Like your model present? Perhaps she fancies you?'

'So she's rich and mental? My kind of woman.' Pat shot in unhelpfully.

'Maybe she just likes to do her bit for hopeless causes?' added J.D.; both of them clearly enjoying the humour at my expense.

'Well I'm not interested. I'm still on the lookout for a nymphomaniac vineyard owner as you know. I'll sleep on it. Thanks for the advice; what would I do if I didn't have you two wise souls to steer me through life?'

 'Spend all day alone in your room eating cake and wanking yourself blind?' said Pat.

'Or forever wander B&Q searching for tartan paint?' said J.D.

I looked at the two of them grinning at me like idiots, matching their keen wit with a snappy, carefully crafted riposte. 'Oh bugger off you two.'

After another hour or so of increasingly far-fetched speculation about Boat Bitch's motives and some general piss-taking, Pat headed home. Simon had joined in after his arrival for the evening shift and provided his share of the comedy; quite impressive from a standing start plus I'm sure he only heard about fifty percent of what was said. I was feeling the effects of another lively day so decided on a timeout in The Crow's Nest.

 

Lying on the bed, I rewound and re-watched the day's events whilst still mulling over how best to respond to the 'For Sale' caper. This was seriously bugging me now. After a brief but hugely enjoyable liaison with Jess and an interesting and productive introduction to Bruno (I'd read his references; they were spot-on), this 'thing' was the real fly in my ointment. If you took the signs on their own, then it wasn't hard to view them as a poor taste prank but if you added in the context of the episode in the bar and the sales office model then they took on more sinister overtones. Should I report it to the police? Was there CCTV on the quay? This seemed like overkill — the only crime the perpetrators had actually committed was taping a couple of bits of laminated cardboard to a listed building. What to do...

After an hour or so of kicking various 'what-if?'s around my head, I'd decided against ignoring Boat Bitch's moves, regardless of their motive. She needed to know I was no pushover and that she couldn't get under my skin. I hadn't folded or ran scared when she and her goons came into the bar and I wasn't going to do so now. I toyed with the idea of sticking up some comic but insulting notices in the SharpCrest yard by way of answer but figured this would be awfully tricky to do and would probably end up with me getting to know the local police rather well. I could phone her; I was sure I could find a number on her web site and get put through. This gave her control though: she could simply choose not to talk to me. Plus, I'd have to work hard at sounding nonchalant which might be a struggle if I got cross, which was highly probable. A letter perhaps? Bit formal, even if I used a jolly font. Also, there was the risk that it might end up in a stack of company mail that she may not read for days, if it reached her at all. Come on — how do you get a woman's attention? Send your footman to read her a poem? Hire a sky-writer to spell out something meaningful with smoke? Drop an anvil on her head? The last option was the most appealing but probably the toughest to organise. And then it hit me, like a sky-written poem or a footman's anvil — flowers!! Of course flowers — women are hard-coded to be drawn to them and they wouldn't loiter in someone's in-tray for weeks. With the right accompanying note they would still send a message, but in an informal, almost playful manner, and that was the tone I was after. This would be a clear signal that indicated her actions hadn't gone unnoticed but that I really couldn't give two shits about her games. And what woman on the planet could resist reading any note attached to flowers they received? She was bound to get the message.

After a few minutes on the laptop I was ready to checkout a rather fancy, abundantly yellow, hand-tied bouquet from a florist's web site that promised next day delivery. After some browsing, I'd found the address for the main SharpCrest yard so that's what I entered for delivery. Even if I was a little wide of the mark, I was sure nobody on her payroll would fail to make sure the Boss received any gift with her name on it. Writing the note took longer; so much so my session on the web site timed out and I had to do the damn order from scratch again. Bloody woman — causing me grief even when she wasn't around. I was aiming for light and breezy, but the first few versions of my communiqué gave off a kind of ransom note vibe. In the end I decided on:

'Dear Angie,

Just a small token to say many thanks
for the attention and your very public gesture
but it's still a no I'm afraid.

It's best you get used to the idea.

Yours,

A close neighbour.'


Clear enough I thought, without being too threatening or (most importantly) incriminating. With my purchase complete, I was already running various scenarios through my mind as to how my gesture might be received the next day. Whatever: it was done. I was feeling a bit jaded from my day but also boosted by my floral yet stoic act of defiance and thought about heading back downstairs for more vino and camaraderie. Pat and J.D.'s earlier banter popped into my head and I laughed out loud. They were sharp; too bloody sharp. Thinking of those two and my other new acquaintances, it struck me what colourful characters they all were. Jess, Janine, Simon, even Bruno — they were all fascinating and full of life; and they just didn't do "dull". Maybe their colour and the various shades of life in Pulton were what my previous monochrome existence truly lacked. And there was romance in the air. But also work to be done — I had a kitchen to kit out. As enticing as it was, the bar would have to wait. Returning my attention to the laptop, I set about my shopping. Blimey; quite a list I had to work through. I was convinced it would be worth it though. Plus, I felt kind of compelled to do whatever Bruno suggested in case he visited during the night and silently ended me.

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