Ken continues to progress his plans for 'The Pulton Arms' and gets to meet the object of his desires for the first time. His day is further enlivened by the arrival of his best friend and a mysterious package... (Full novel available in the Amazon Kindle store).
Alarmed, I whipped around to look at him, only to see fake wide-eyed panic on his face accompanied by a toothy grin. 'You bastard. I barely held my fudge there. "Seven" is a film, not a documentary you know. And I understand Gwyneth Paltrow is alive and well, which is surprising when you consider her diet consists of a single boiled lentil once a year.' I retrieved the knife and returned my attention to the package which I now noticed was in fact the ideal size to house a human head, though I doubted its contents were that exotic. It had arrived during the last few hot and sweaty hours I'd spent trying to reclaim the kitchen. And reclaim it I had.
I now had a room I could see all four walls of. Once de-cluttered, it was actually a decent-sized space, looking all the bigger for my side-lining of the picnic furniture that allowed me to move around without hindrance. Even better, it now looked like a kitchen. My efforts had unearthed a sink, some more worktops and numerous storage cupboards of assorted sizes. Even better, I'd revealed a chest freezer big enough to house a small elephant. Or possibly a neatly-folded giraffe. And best of all, dominating the room was the gas range that took up the majority of the wall that bordered the utility room, boasting all sorts of burners and ovens. There were also other bits of miscellaneous equipment dotted around whose function I couldn't even begin to guess at, but was excited to have as part of the culinary arsenal none the less. My, did it all need some work though. Everything looked neglected and grubby, from the torn and peeling lino floor, to the cracked wall tiles, to the polystyrene squares on the ceiling. The latter reminded me of the Chemistry lab at my old Grammar School, bearing the many splotches and scars from years of poorly executed experiments conducted by over-enthusiastic students who really just wanted to see stuff blow up rather than learn anything. Like The Crow's Nest, this was just another tired space that time, money and elbow grease could revitalise.
Janine and J.D. had dropped by from time to time to see how things were progressing and laugh at how much I was huffing and puffing as I worked. But now this first stage was complete (and because I was feeling awfully pleased with myself and seriously needed a break from my exertions), I popped my head into the bar. 'Hey guys: we have the kitchen back. Sort of.'
J.D. was first in and took a long look around then clapped his hands together. 'Right: you start peeling the spuds and I'll clear some wall space for the Michelin plaque.'
Janine peered around him and did her own survey. 'Nice job. Can we keep Bernie still?'
This was a positive response from the both of them at least. 'Janine — if Bernie was a horse, a vet would have shot him by now. It might be time to put him out of his misery and move on.' She gave me a look of feigned shock and put her hand to her mouth then grinned and went back to the bar, shouting 'If Bernie goes so do I! Oh and you've got a parcel.' as she left.
There was no delivery address on the package and similarly no clue as to the sender. It sat there on the bar enigmatically, adorned only with a handful of stickers declaring the contents to be fragile and insisting it was to be kept upright in transit. According to Janine, it had been dropped off by 'some weirdo' who didn't ask for a signature or smile at all. Reasonably confident that J.D. was done with his comic interventions, I sliced through the packing tape and opened the box.
Its interior was topped with a generous layer of polystyrene chips that obscured whatever lay beneath so I tentatively slid my hand into them as if taking part in a lucky dip for loaded mouse traps. A few inches down, my fingers found something solid, angular, and most unlike a human head. After swishing around to find the limits of the mystery object, I gripped what felt like its base and pulled it slowly from the box, spilling packaging onto the counter as I went.
It was a model. Of a building. Standing about eight inches’ square, it wasn't incredibly detailed but was still rather exquisite, like one of those proof-of-concept constructions that architects knock up for their prospective clients. I turned it in my hands whilst shrugging at J.D. and Janine who both looked as bemused as I was. The structure looked modern and business-like; very white and bright with expansive windows across the two floors of its frontage, though the pitched tiled roof looked quite retro and a poor match for the contemporary storeys it sheltered. 'Looks like a posh Estate Agent's office.' I handed the model to J.D.
He slowly rotated it, scrutinising it from every angle, all the while frowning with curiosity. 'Dunno what it is. Maybe they delivered to the wrong address?' As he went to pass the model back to me, he had another thought and turned it over to look at its underside. 'Ah. Nope; it's the right address.'
I took the still upturned model from him, seeing the label stating 'Pulton Arms/SharpCrest conversion. Version 2.0 July 2014'. I righted the model and held it at arm’s length, taking in its overall proportions and structure with a fresh perspective. It was my pub. Or rather, it was my pub re-imagined as per Boat Bitch's twisted aspirations and it was all wrong; wrong like your octogenarian Gran wearing a Princess Leia slave costume to a Christening. It appeared I'd been correct with my architect's prototype idea. And the date proved that Boat Bitch had indeed been fostering her development idea for some time. But whatever strings she might be able to pull on the planning committee, this was just too radical to gain any traction surely? Or was keeping the original roof the only concession she had to make to get approval? Alternatively, perhaps she'd failed to get that approval and had tossed the redundant model my way for use as a bar decoration. Whichever way you sliced it, it was still rather odd. 'Erm — anyone else think this is a bit weird?' My companions remained silent as I fished through the packaging left in the box, searching for any other clues as to its purpose or meaning. Without success. 'Well, it’s obviously from Boat Bitch but if it’s a message of some sort, it’s lost on me.'
J.D. shrugged. 'Dunno. Maybe it's some sort of apology for yesterday. I wouldn't stress about it. Nice model; and free too. Good result I'd say. Something to brighten up the Gay Garage.'
Janine seemed similarly underwhelmed. 'Who doesn't love a pressie? Always had you pegged as the doll's house type too. Be happy.' Then she was off attending to our clientele.
Still rather puzzled by my special delivery, I returned the model to its box and set about clearing the bar of the disgorged packaging. Then I checked the time: just after two. It was time for a lunch break.
After a few hours spent humping barrels and crates I was a bit crusty, so a quick shower and change of clothes were had. Outfit choice was limited as I was rapidly getting through the single bag selection I'd brought with me, having decided to gift the remainder of my wardrobe to a Crawley charity shop. My fresh start warranted new clothes to accompany it; I just hadn't got around to buying them yet. Also, I'd been wearing the same stuff for years, as you do when you're a way down the road in a long-term relationship and well past the dressing-to-impress stage. There were also a few items I was pretty sure harked back to the days when my Mum bought all my clothes. I dug out some clean(ish) jeans and a dark blue long-sleeved shirt that could probably be deemed 'smart casual' in a favourable light. Shoe selection was easy — the white trainers or the black ones? Black it was. Hot to trot, I threw my coat on and headed downstairs and out, firing a quick 'Laters!' at my colleagues on my way out, nearly tripping over Halo as I wasn't looking where I was going. It was another cold one today; colder than yesterday if anything but I wasn't going far — just three doors up to "Coasters". Where else?
Once again, I found myself looking beyond the menu taped to the window to see what, or more importantly who, I could see inside. But alas, the goddess was nowhere in sight. I took a deep breath then let it go, rather impressed by how much of it remained hanging in the frigid air. I was pumped up by today's achievements in the pub yet still awash with nervous excitement about potentially coming face-to-face with this unfamiliar yet majestic individual. Those receiving a knighthood probably feel much the same ahead of the ceremony. The Queen comes across as benign but wields a sword and could have your head off should she wish it, so you'd be both thrilled and apprehensive I'd imagine. Reminding myself I was a grown-up that had met women before and wasn't a twitchy teen leaning in for his first ever snog, I mentally manned-up and walked into "Coasters" for the first time.
I took in the room as I strode towards the bar in what I hoped was a confident looking fashion. The decor was shiny laminate wood floor and roughly-plastered blue walls which appeared to be an exact match for the shade of my shirt. For a moment, I pictured myself standing there with a disembodied head, hands and legs as the rest of me became one with the emulsion. The backdrop to the bar was an enormous fish tank that spanned most of its length, with numerous varieties of multi-coloured tropical fish milling about in it. I couldn't say which species were present, despite having watched "Finding Nemo" twice. As I approached, a bartender noticed me and started to head over but then my view was suddenly hijacked as a familiar face popped up from behind the bar and hit me with the same smile that had rooted me to the quayside pavement just yesterday. Wow, she looked even hotter than I'd remembered. For a few frozen seconds, I was the pre-snog teen again, but then forced myself into action.
'Hi I'm Ken.' I blurted out. Because you always introduce yourself to the bar staff don't you? Trickett you prick. Then I compounded the damage by following up with 'I really like your fish.' Stellar banter Ken — bravo.
This drew a slight frown but thankfully her smile held and she didn't look to be reaching for a panic button. 'Hi, I'm Jess. What can I get you?'
I was struggling to get my thoughts in order. Damn it, I should have asked Janine for some refresher training on how to chat up girls without coming across as a bit of a plonker. It appeared that forty years on the planet had been woefully inadequate prep. All I could do was think back to the last drink I'd had that wasn't water or tea. 'Um, a red wine please.'
'Any one in particular? I can show you the list if you'd like.'
'No just the house one thanks. The red one. The red house one.' The smile dipped a little: I could tell she was trying to work out if I was completely devoid of social skills or suffered from some kind of mental impairment. At that point I could have convinced the leading experts in either field that I was afflicted with both conditions. She turned and went routing for a bottle on the bar behind her. I tried not to stare as it was like looking at the sun through binoculars, but she made even the bland house uniform of white blouse and black skirt look good. If she were a celebrity being described by a Daily Mail columnist they'd be throwing all the clichés in there — "enviable figure", "ample curves" and "never-ending legs". And they'd be pretty spot-on to be honest. Goodness she was one well put together lady.
'There you go.' she said, placing a glass in front of me. I briefly considered knocking it back in one to steady my nerves, but decided against it. No doubt she already thought I was a bit weird so probably best to not give her the impression I was a raging alcoholic too.
'Are you eating?'
'Err, I might do.'
'Okay, well there's menus on the tables — just order at the bar when you've decided what you'd like. I'll start a tab for you.'
At that point I decided to retreat and regroup, seeing as my initial charm offensive had rather misfired.
'Thanks, Jess.' It was pretty cool to say her name, like we'd established a slim personal connection I could work on fleshing out. Even though at that precise moment she was probably thinking about whether to call the police or ring the local mental hospital to suggest they carried out a head count. Still, my goddess now had a name. And I really liked the name Jess. Drink in hand, I went and sat at a table that gave me a clear view of the bar. I picked up the menu and pretended to read it but I really wasn't interested in food. A couple of large mouthfuls of my wine quickly took effect as my cells were seemingly not completely rid of what I'd downed last night and swiftly remembered their role and got on with the job of loosening me up as I gazed towards the bar.
After several minutes still clutching the menu, I gave it more focus and tried to absorb its contents. Unsurprisingly, it advertised the same fare as the window version I'd browsed yesterday, being mostly all about the seafood. My passion for fish usually only extended as far as the boneless, battered variety (hence my lust for "Yardley's" last evening). In my experience, the other versions are just too slimy, or packed full of bones that will kill you unless you spend an inordinate amount of time painstakingly plucking the stealthy beggars out, all the while wishing you'd ordered the burger in the first place. Putting the menu down, I considered ordering another glass as I'd all but seen off my first. But then I was met with the sight of Jess emerging from behind the bar, fully dressed for the outdoors. She waved a cheerio to her colleagues; stopping briefly before venturing outside to make sure her bright red coat, hat and scarf were properly arranged to keep out the cold. I guessed that was the end of her shift; the goodbye wave would have been overkill if she was just popping to the post box and back. Bugger. As something of a consolation prize, I did get another smile and a wave as she passed my table on her way out.
'Bye Ken!' She’d remembered my name at least. I was gutted she was leaving but returned the smile enthusiastically. 'Bye Jess; have a good night.' A slightly odd thing to say perhaps but I could have done much worse. Sure, I was somewhat deflated now that she'd left but hey, at least we'd met and introduced ourselves. Yes, I could have made a better first impression I was sure but it wasn't the catastrophe it might have been. I hadn't soiled myself in front of her or set fire to the place so on balance I shouldn't be too hard on myself. And God willing, there would be other chances to impress and I reckoned I was over the first time jitters. Feeling chirpier, I decided I would have another wine. Having settled my tab, I returned to my table and took in a bit more of "Coasters" now that the focus of my attention had selfishly left the building to get on with her day.
Actually this place wasn't too bad; it still had that big chain feel but managed to generate a more appealing atmosphere. To be honest, I'd have been okay with it even if the floor was molten lava and they had Barry Manilow playing on a permanent loop as long as Jess was around. Ah Jess. Was she out of my league? Very much. Was I going to let that stop me trying? Very much not. 'Faint heart ne'er won fair maiden' as the saying goes. That said, I'm sure it's not unheard of for romance to blossom between cardiac patients and their easy-on-the-eye nurses.
I'd guess Jess to be in her early thirties. If so, our width of age gap was pretty commonplace in relationships these days so I didn’t think that would be a problem. Physical compatibility might be the bigger issue. Jess was inarguably a super soar-away stunner; a twelve out of ten (I was sourcing my descriptive snippets from The Sun now, not The Mail) and I was... well: not that. I was no physical disaster and didn't feel the need to wear a bell around my neck to alert sensitive womenfolk to the fact that I was in the vicinity so they could shield their eyes. ‘Average-looking’ was the assessment delivered by several of my girl friends over the years. Average doesn't turn heads when you walk into a room, unless you're wearing fancy dress or playing a musical instrument loudly. Average doesn't make every straight woman present want to jump on your bones there and then. But average does make you less threatening and a more appealing conversation prospect more often than not. And that was me — I was a grower. I'd never elicit a 'Phwoarrr!!' from anyone but I was a good talker (today's train wreck of a conversation aside) and an attentive listener, and attraction seemed to stem from there. Plus, it was obvious from the off that I wasn't a mirror-hogging narcissist. Anyway, they do say that real beauty lies within, though that might just be a notion that us average sorts try and sell to more attractive people.
So yeah; generally, I was happy with the skin I was in. But when it came to Jess, I couldn't help but wish I had a bit more in my cosmetic arsenal. Having been a desk jockey for so many years with little time for exercise (and by time I mean inclination), I wasn't in the best shape. I wasn't fat: I just looked rather over-inflated at certain angles. Both times I'd been around Jess I'd probably been too distracted to suck my stomach in too, dammit. But as long as I didn't swap my sedentary office existence for daily sessions on the ale in the pub, I could shed some poundage. So other than slimming down a bit, I wasn't sure there was a great deal else I could overhaul. My height was in my favour as Jess was no shorty. And overall I was 'tidy' — usually clean-shaven with hair short enough to be practically maintenance-free. The brown was about to lose the battle with the grey, a shade that the aforementioned girl friends actually said suited me. Other than that, I comprised a squarish face with blue eyes and a standard-sized set of protuberances attached. In a word; average. Oh and I did have a short, narrow scar high up in the middle of my forehead from taking a tumble on a stony footpath at a festival years ago. It was the undulating surface and the darkness that unbalanced me; nothing to do with a day on the strong cider at all. But even that blemish was barely noticeable; nothing on a Harry Potter scale. One other possibility was livening up my dress sense some — I trended towards conservative but current; more Next than Armani. Who knows — there was always the remote possibility that she'd love me as I was. On that more optimistic note, I finished off my drink, got coated up and headed outside.
I was turning for home when the thought "duvet" randomly popped into my mind. Yes! Well done brain — after a shoddy performance during my first conversation with Jess, it was doing its best to make amends. It wasn't quite yet dark so I figured it must be around fourish and the shops would still be open so I made for the High Street. Maybe it was the red wine working its magic but it seemed to have warmed up a bit outside so I didn't need to match yesterday's strident pace so took more time to have a nose in some of the shop windows that I passed.
"Plush!" was the local success story, producing handmade soaps and all manner of other bath and beauty products with quirky names and presentation that more closely resembled confectionery. A crossover that I'm sure many small children had fallen foul of when Mum wasn't watching them closely enough. Through the window, I could see numerous stacks of brightly-coloured lumps of product marshalled by blackboards adorned with price and recipe information. They also bore various catchy slogans reinforcing the company's green message and totally PC credentials with the whole store lovingly arranged and enthusiastically tended by young girls with aprons and multi-coloured hair. After similar companies had trodden the same pro-environment path and been found morally deficient, it was easy to be cynical but I understood that “Plush!” fully practised what they preached. Even through the window, I managed to catch a strong exotic waft from what was on display inside. Imagine how that atmosphere must permeate your clothes, skin and hair if you worked in-store. Perhaps the staff spent the last hour of their shift handling raw fish to compensate. A few doors down, next to the Army surplus shop, there was what appeared to be a new pound store being fitted out. Okay, it was new business which was a positive, but a growing number of bargain basement outlets wasn't an indicator of a town on the up to my mind. And that wasn't down to any snobbery on my part — I had visited the Crawley discount shop several times. That said, the mini torch I bought there conked out after a week which was disappointing. They couldn't replace it so I settled for store credit — mustn't forget that: I may need to pool all my financial reserves at some point.
The department store yielded all the bedding I needed. If they'd had stocked mattresses and bed frames, I'd have been dragging them down the street back to the pub too. With a fairly sizeable bag under my arm I headed for the quay, deciding to walk on the other side of the street so I had different windows to peek into. Just short of the quay, I made an intriguing discovery.
In the middle of a long stretch of unlit or boarded-up shop fronts, I saw light shining from the windows of a modestly-sized unit accompanied by hammering and drilling noises that suggested work in progress. On reaching it, I could see several bodies moving around in the bright interior. There were clearly several trades all employed at the same time as walls were being painted whilst light fittings were being wired in and shelves and cabinets erected. There was an "Opening Soon!" sign taped to the inside of a front window and the hectic activity within suggested they meant it. I took a couple of steps back to survey the frontage but there were no clues as to what nature of shop it was going to be; instead, just a blank fascia. Curious, I returned to the window. One of the guys working inside saw me standing there and smiled and gave me a thumbs-up. I was tempted to shout through the window and ask what business was coming but he quickly turned and clambered up a step ladder and turned his attention to some dangling down-lighters. I was about to turn for home again when something in the corner of the room caught my eye. It was a sign; hand-painted it appeared. The dust cover that had been draped over it for protection had slipped down at one corner and I could make out some of the lettering — "Westall's Deli"; in gold on black. My heart leapt. Actually it did more than leap — it flew off a vaulting horse then completed a two-minute session on the high bar. This was like discovering Atlantis and walking into a temple to find Lord Lucan drinking from The Holy Grail. A deli meant cheese. And fancy cheese too. Cheese was another of my great passions in life you see. Together with wine, it had done much to prevent me from getting in shape over the years. Don't get me wrong, I have a great deal of affection and respect for family and friends as well, but should I have to choose between all my interests at gun point, I'd escape the bullet-ridden carnage accompanied by the sound of clinking bottles and a waft of Camembert. I don't believe I've ever used the phrase 'That's too much cheese' and when I've heard it uttered by others, I've just assumed they have a specific medical condition that precludes them from dairy or they're from another planet. One of the oft-repeated scenes in disaster movies is the devastation of Paris by meteor/earthquake/big lizard/affordable haute couture, presumably after film makers decide in a pre-production meeting that it's not New York's turn this time. I watch the destruction unfold whilst tearfully struggling to come to terms with the thought of the gallons of Shiraz and the wheels of Brie being laid to waste. Oh, the Humanity!
Hold on — what if it's an old sign left by the business they're replacing? I must ask the guys at the pub. Goodness; meeting Jess and discovering a potential rich vein of cheese to mine, all in one afternoon. What a time to be alive.
I headed off at an energetic pace, keen to get back to the pub and share my afternoon with whoever wanted to listen, even if that turned out to be Halo; solely. Just a few yards from home, unfamiliar noises and vibrations started emanating from my jeans. My pocket cyborg had become self-aware and was staging a hostile takeover. After shoving my shopping under my other arm and extracting the device from my pocket (with some difficulty due to the cheese induced tightness of my trousers), it became apparent that I was simply subject of an incoming telephone call. I recognised the number and the accompanying surf dude mug shot so I answered.
'Yarternooooonah! Alright fat boy?' It was Pat, my best mate.
'I'm sorry but I think you've miss-dialled Sir. This is the Erectile Dysfunction Clinic: perhaps you had our number saved in your contacts or frequently dialled list and had some finger trouble?'
'Oh my mistake. Accidents will happen. Your Mum always says that whenever your name crops up.'
'Mum gags already? Really?'
'I was just in a Mum kind of mood. Tell her I'll be round in ten.'
'Okay okay. How's things matey?'
'All good me old, all good. What's it like to be back home? With all the free beer you can drink?'
'It's been interesting to say the least. But yeah; great to be back. You going to drop in and let me overcharge you for a pint?'
'For sure. How about tonight?'
'Works for me bud. See you then. Text me when you're on way so I've got time to get the women to safety.'
'Well they're clearly in no danger from you. See you on the Ron John.'
I hadn't seen Pat for some time. We'd had a really brief chat when I came home for Aunt Maddy's funeral but we were long overdue a proper catch-up. Great — I was so looking forward to seeing him later. Plus, I could pick his brains about the gate for the yard and the work needed to get the kitchen up to scratch. Pat was a builder by trade and there was very little he couldn't turn his hand to and if there was any task that he wasn't expert at, he knew someone that was. Feeling pretty good about pretty much everything, I continued on to the pub (after a slow walk past "Coasters", just in case I happened to spot someone I knew).
On trying the front door, I was surprised to find it locked. Looking through the window, I could see lights on and nothing untoward, but nobody around. Rather puzzled, I walked down the side alley to give the tradesman's entrance a try. En-route I noticed that the metal gate to The Gents' loo was also locked. Due to the rather odd layout of the building, you could only access that facility from the alley so if you were a bloke needing to answers Nature’s call, you'd have to exit the pub via the front door and walk around. There was a sign in the bar to that effect but not everyone noticed it. I'd already seen a couple of guys leaving it till the last minute to go, then asking the staff where the toilet was, then panicking when they realised it might be beyond the range of their bladder control. The Gents' was another room seriously in need of modernisation. The urinal was a museum piece — all ceramic, with tiles across two walls dropping down to a trough in the floor. It was actually quite liberating to use; no need for any sort of precision when aiming. I guessed it hadn't been high on Aunt Maddy's list to update as it was accessible by all on the street when the pub was open and couldn't be readily monitored so was open to mistreatment, potentially. Maybe we should keep it locked and keep the key in the bar, tied to something heavy like they do at remote gas stations in American films. The gate to the yard was thinly ajar and the back door was unlocked. In the kitchen, I found J.D. tucking into a takeaway pizza straight from the box.
'Fanthy thum?' said J.D. with his mouth full.
'I certainly do; thanks.' The smell was wonderful; I dropped my shopping and tucked in. Conversation was short and sharp, consisting solely of economically brief phrases slotted into the occasional pauses between slices. 'Front door locked. How come?'
'Sometimes do between afternoon and evening if we're quiet. Maybe pop home for a bit or get paperwork done.'
'You know it.'
Pizza finished, we both sat back and puffed appreciatively. 'Thanks for that; proper lush.'
'No problem. You paid for it anyway. ' He belched loudly. 'Petty cash.'
'Oh right. You're welcome then.'
'I'll open up.'
'Okay. I'll go sort out my manly shopping.'
'Have fun in The Cock's Nest.'
It was toasty upstairs; a bit too warm in fact, so I turned the thermostat down a couple of notches. Before getting busy, I grabbed a pair of mini-speakers out of my bag and plugged them into my phone so I could enjoy some tunes while I did so. I stripped off all the old bedding and chucked it into a heap in the corner of the room. It didn't get added to my washing pile as I foresaw it going the same way as the horror towel i.e. the bin. The new fitted sheet put up a fight and I spent several minutes wrestling with that. Being just too small for the mattress, it kept pinging off when I tried to persuade it to commit to more than two corners at once. Throughout the contest, I did my best not to look too closely at the state of the mattress beneath as on first glance it looked to have more splats and stains than a paintballer's overalls. In the end, I triumphed by adopting a Spiderman-like stance that allowed me to pin the fitted corners with my feet whilst affixing the others. The rest came together with much less resistance and once done, I decided to go for a test flight and have a bit of a lie down. Enjoying the fresh linen smell and the lack of damp, I spent a while embellishing Van Halen's greatest hits with my off-key humming whilst my mind wandered. Inevitably, Jess was uppermost in my thoughts. I wondered what she might be doing right now. If she works days at "Coasters", what does she do with her evenings? Maybe she reads or does yoga? Or knits her own clothes or restores classic cars? Perhaps she pens heart-rending poetry about lost love or writes manuals on gerbil care? Or goes for long romantic walks and dinners with her boyfriend or husband? Someone that attractive must be perpetually fending off admirers with a stick mustn't they? Or maybe she's a serial dater and doesn't fend them off at all? I'd learnt her name today which was a start but there was so much more to find out. About Jess and gerbil care both.
Sometime later, I snored myself awake with a start, having drifted off during my cogitations. Feeling a bit groggy, I clambered off the bed, narrowly avoiding standing on my phone where I'd left it on the floor. I turned off the music and checked the time. It was just after seven, so I hadn't been dozing long. As the sleep cleared from my vision, I came to focus on the model of a brutally reinvented Pulton Arms that sat on the shelf opposite me. Its original appeal had been irrecoverably tarnished by the realisation that it was the by-product of Boat Bitch's scheming but I'd left it on view as a gruesome reminder of what might be should I ever abdicate my responsibility as the pub's protector. Mind you, I remained reasonably confident that even someone with Boat Bitch's local clout couldn't mangle a listed building to such an extent. I thought back to J.D.'s and Janine's earlier unruffled take on it and decided to adopt the same stance. Maybe after yesterday's discussion this was merely some sort of conciliatory gesture. Ah whatever. After mentally shrugging off my bafflement, I splashed some water on my face to perk myself up then headed downstairs.
J.D. and Simon were behind the bar, chatting and laughing with a customer — it was Pat. 'Christ J.D. — I turn my back for a few minutes and you invite all the undesirables in!' I shouted from the kitchen door.
'No just the one.' said J.D. They'd obviously made their introductions. 'I was going to come up and give you a shout but he's better company than you.'
Pat grinned broadly. 'So you're up at last. Entertaining a young lady in The Sausage Lodge were we?'
God, that gag wasn’t going away anytime soon was it. 'Two actually. They needed a break; both exhausted and dehydrated, so I thought I'd pop down until they're ready for round five. I expected more stamina from eighteen-year-old gymnasts but there you go.' I reached over the bar and shook his hand. 'Good to see you buddy.'
And it really was. We'd been mates for over twenty years and he was one of a small handful of friends that I'd do anything for and whose company I never tired of. We'd got to know each other via his brother (also one of my elite bunch) when he (Pat) returned to the world after a stint with the RAF. We soon bonded and ended up partners in crime when it came to pubbing, clubbing and chasing the ladies: the latter with which he had the edge due to him being a rather handsome chap and a couple of years younger than me (bastard). We'd settled down a lot since those days so when we did get together it tended to be for a quiet pint and a chat or a video game fest. He'd worn well though and was in much better shape than me (bastard) due to the physical nature of his day job. He'd also got an adorable fiancé in the form of Lorna who was a good few years younger than him and I think she and their seven-year-old lad helped him keep the years at bay. There was no nonsense and no bullshit with Pat; he was smart and funny and I loved him like a brother.
'Good to see you too me old. Look at you — your own pub. Fuck me; talk about living the dream.'
'I know! Still hasn't really sunk in. I don't miss all that office bollocks that’s for sure. You ticking over okay? How's the family?'
'Family are good; Lor says hi. Work's a bit patchy — hopefully got a top-drawer job coming from a developer we did a contract for recently but it's taking a while to land so we're filling the gap with a few tiddlers at the mo. Not ideal but you know.'
'Have you thought about prostitution? That would help you fill your days. It'd cost you a fortune though.'
'Why? You looking for clients?'
I cracked and laughed aloud, thus losing that particular exchange. 'Actually; being serious for a minute, I might have some work to put your way if you're interested. There's a lot needs doing around here.'
'Okay cool.' He drained what was left of his pint. 'Give me the tour. Oh and something to write on ta.'
I took him upstairs to see The Sausage Lodge (if you can't beat them...) then headed back down and out to the yard. It was proper dark now and there was limited light in the alley but he could see just well enough to size up the gate and jot down some rough measurements. I say rough; knowing Pat they were probably only a few millimetres out, if any.
When we reached the kitchen, I realised that I’d struggle to outline the work required as I didn't have a clue regarding what was needed to get it to where it needed to be, other than 'lots'. 'So what do you know about fitting out professional kitchens? Health and Safety, Food Hygiene — all that gubbins?'
'Probably as much as you know about changing the head gasket on a 1995 Ford Probe.'
Maybe J.D. would have a better handle on that from his experience. He was behind the bar making a fuss of Halo in her basket. 'You got a minute J.D.?'
'Sure.' He joined us in the kitchen.
'You know catering don't you? What do we need to do in here?'
He smiled like he was fishing for a jokey comeback but when he clocked me and Pat looking at him expectantly, he realised we were looking for more than that. 'Well; I’ve worked food before but that was a while ago and there's probably way more to it these days. One thing you can be sure of is that the wall tiles will have to go — you can't have any surfaces like that where anything gnarly can gather and breed in the cracks. Same goes for the floor — nowhere germs can hide and nothing that stuff can soak into. Same for the ceiling.' That made good sense, and the shell had to be right before we could think about fitting the rest out. I'd kind of hoped we could get away with a thorough whizz round with the Dettol but that was just naivety getting pally with ill-placed optimism. Pat made a few more notes. I decided that was enough to think on for now. 'Okay thanks guys. Drink?'
The three of us then hunkered down at the far end of the bar and talked next steps. The good news was that Pat was happy to take the work on and could make a start in a few days' time, with the caveat that he might have to bail on the job if the contract he was waiting on came in. That was fair enough, but I really wanted him to tackle the kitchen because I knew he'd do great work and wouldn't pull my pants down over the price. Also, he and J.D. clearly got on like a house on fire which would make things go way more smoothly. Yes, it would seriously up the ante when it came to jokes at my expense but I could live with that.
With the shop talk complete, J.D. left me and Pat to ourselves to catch up, which we did at length. Of course my headline item was Jess, and his response was much as I'd expected.
'Go for it you old dog. You never know. She might be single, plus she's clearly got awful eyesight and no sense of smell. You could get to know her by setting up play dates with J.D.'s mutt and her guide dog.'
Time flew by as it tended to do when we got together for a natter and all too soon Simon was calling last orders. Pat had sunk three or four pints (all of which he insisted on paying for — 'You've got your pension to think about you old git.') so he decided to walk home. He made a point of saying cheerio to Simon and J.D., promised he'd call me tomorrow with a quote for the work then signed off with a 'Cheers fatso.' I'd enjoyed a couple of wines so felt comfortable but capable, so hung around to help the guys clear up and close down. When we were done, Simon headed off and J.D. made ready to do the same, putting his coat on and grabbing Halo's lead. Suddenly, a thought from last night's drunken blur came back to me — something about an alarm. 'Oh hey J.D. — can you tell me about the burglar alarm?'
'It's an electronic device that makes a loud noise if someone breaks in. It's not a new invention.'
'Okay. More specifically, can you tell me about our alarm?'
'The panel's by the back door; the code’s written on a beer mat slipped under the till. Only the doors and windows are alarmed and just on this floor. We did have a monitored deal but it got too pricey for Mads so you just get the bells now, not the SWAT team backup. We do have one deterrent though.' He reached down and brought out a cricket bat from below the counter, tapping its end on his empty palm while smiling knowingly. I'd spotted this object before but assumed it was a piece of sports memorabilia he hadn't got around to mounting on the wall. He placed it back on the shelf. 'Come on; I'll show you on my way out. I usually set it then anyway.' He headed out the bar, turning off the lights as he went.