From the novel “Return to Cocoa Yard” a work in progress…
On the high street of some dead town Walker settled in a pub called The Barrel, where the 3 o’clock dregs took varnish off the bar and talked shite. He’d been looking for somewhere showing the World Cup because the other week he’d had a bet – 300/1 shot there wouldn’t be a single goalless draw in the entire competition. He’d put down a ton and so far all was rosy to pick up thirty grand. And so there he was, nursing a pint of heavy and ready for France Denmark, both of whom had qualified so maybe wouldn’t give a toss just go for it, try to top the group.
Walker was thirty-six, a loner who liked to be alone, who got his kicks in the bookies’, so many kicks that he lost his wife and friends in that order. Ten years ago he was living with Pip, they were happy or he was, planning to get married and have kids and all the rest. When push came to shove he loved her but when push came to shove over his gambling she walked out. She’d lived with it for years and while he called it a hobby she called it addiction. And when he lost his wages on poker, indulging his hobby with the rent going begging, she could live with his addiction no more.
And yes, Walker also had friends once; Toby, Yoda, Flick and Pogo, who’d hog the games tables of Workingmen’s Clubs, betting on everything, three-card-brag, pontoon, dominoes, the gender of the next person to walk in the door. He was the ringleader, the master, the kingpin on a winning streak… till he bet away his friends as well when one of them welshed. If he were a psychologist he’d discuss the deliberation of his downward spiral, because once he had his own company and travel he was happy at last. Happy that was until the fucking French and Danes fucked his bet by drawing nil nil in the dourest game of the fucking century.
Walker hated the fucking French. Ever since he rode a night bus from Paris to Lyon and was joined on the back seat by three Paris skins. Thinking he was English they began to taunt him, saying Saxonisms like fuck off and piss off, and the English are scum. Even when he told the thick cunts he was Scottish they persisted, saying they hated everything British. Fair enough, he’d said, and when the bus hit Macon he got off and they did too, and scrapped on the station till he was lying half bloody dead.
“The most boring game of the whole tournament that,” said one of the dregs at the bar going by the name of Gordon, Gord to his friends, who agreed. “Fucking shite,” said a bloke called Hen. “I don’t know why you bothered fucking watching it,” said the barmaid Ange and they agreed.
Walker agreed too but didn’t say as much, in fact he said nothing, just sat wetting his belly, drying out the thought of thirty grand unwon and thinking he’d maybe have a monkey on the English reaching the Final.
Listening to the witty or banal conversation of the now five o’clock dregs, he smiled to himself or thought to himself it was banal.
“It’ll be raucous in here on Thursday,” said Ange, of the forthcoming game against the Belgians, “thank Christ I’m on my holidays.”
“We’re all going on a Summer Holiday,” sang Gord, whose thing it was to set every desultory pontification to music.
“Belgium are a good side,” said Hen, “we’ll soon see how good England are.”
“We’ve played nobody so far,” agreed a bloke named Daz.
“You can only beat what’s in front of you,” Jigger philosophized.
“Yea fucking Panama,” countered Daz, his glass always half-broken.
“If anybody can beat us it’s the Belgians with de Bruyne in the side,” agreed Hen, “I’ll have you any money.”
“Money money money,” sang Gord, jangling his trouser pocket.
Walker supped his third pint of heavy and pondered all this – personally he had England to win on Thursday and would definitely have a punt on them reaching the final, just to spite Daz, who he didn’t know but didn’t like. He loathed negative attitudes, always had done, he preferred to believe, even when staring down the barrel of defeat. Surely if you’re English you back your team? Or maybe Daz wasn’t in fact English? He wouldn’t ask, he didn’t like him and didn’t care – one of them know-all Yorkshire bastards who argue just to pass the time, a commodity they all obviously had too much of in their meaningless existence.
“How you getting to the airport?” Hen asked Ange.
“Bus,” she said.
“Oh the wheels on the bus go round and round,” sang Gord.
“Oh fuck off,” said Jigger.
“Everything you say he puts to sodding music,” said Ange, with the air of someone desperate to get on her holidays.
“The hills are alive…,” sang Gord out of light-hearted defiance.
“Where are you going again?” Daz asked Ange.
“Andalucia,” said Ange, and had he known where Andalucia was, Gord would’ve sung Y viva Espana. But he didn’t, so he didn’t, and everybody was glad.
“Right, I’m off home,” said Hen after a brief lull, and promptly ordered another pint.
“I’ll have one with you,” said Daz, who then began an anecdote about the trouble he’d had with his car – something about the mechanic telling him it was the starter motor but he knew best of course. But nobody was really listening. In fact, they were glad of three more people coming in and serving an interruption.
“Hello Harry!” exclaimed Ange.
“Here he is!” said Hen.
“Hello,” said Mary, Harry’s wife, “Go and sit down sweetheart I’ll get you a drink.”
While Mary went to the bar, Anna, Harry’s eldest, escorted him to a chair near Walker.
“Sit there dad,” she said, “mum’s getting you a drink.”
“How is he?” Jigger asked Mary.
“Still the same,” she said, “sometimes he knows us sometimes he doesn’t.”
“It’s a bastard disease,” Daz diagnosed, and this time nobody could disagree, not least Mary who’d lived with this for four years now and was in all honesty at her wits’ end but would never show it. She couldn’t. She wouldn’t.
Walker looked at Harry, who struggled to his feet and looked back at him vacantly. “Hello,” he said, feeling for some reason like he for once ought to make conversation.
“Sorry,” said Anna, “sit down dad, let the gentleman read his paper.”
“Hello,” said Harry.
“Hello,” Walker said back.
“Is it time for your tablet dad?” Anna asked, and explained to Walker that he’d been complaining of a bad back.
By this time Mary had finished the small-talk with the bar-flies and was joining her daughter and husband with three drinks, one of which ferried by helpful Hen because she couldn’t carry them all.
“Thanks Hen,” said Mary.
“How are you, Harry?” asked Hen.
“You remember Hen,” said Mary, “It’s Hen, off the buses.”
“Hen,” said Harry, more by rote than familiarity.
“He’s grumbling about his back,” Anna told her mum.
“I’ll give him a tablet,” she said, going in her handbag.
“Cheers dad,” said Anna.
“Hen,” said Harry.
As Mary popped a blister pack, Walker wondered if this were a real tablet or placebo and wanted to ask but didn’t. Somehow reading his mind, Anna struck up a conversation, telling him they saw the first signs about five years ago when her dad was forced to retire from the buses which he’d driven for thirty-five years. He was well-known for being cheerful, giving the time of day to man, woman and child. Always a smile and a chat, always a joke or a well-timed put-down when schoolkids were cheeky. A strong man, a kind man and one who’d be joined at the bar by all and sundry, knowing they’d be in for good company. The company for whom he worked rewarded his service with a gold clock and a healthy redundancy which they’d put by for when he eventually went into a home because they couldn’t cope. For the first time in ages Walker felt bound by conversation.
“Thirty-five years,” he said, admiringly.
“A long time,” mused Mary, a small woman with dark hair who was once a looker but was now lined like a sawn-off branch showing her years.
“Real grafter my dad,” said Anna, also a looker but beginning to show the dark rings of a weary carer.
“Prided himself on his driving,” said Mary, “Didn’t you Harry? Pride yourself on your driving?”
“My back,” he muttered.
“He’s hard work now,” said Anna, if she were brutally honest.
“But we love him,” Mary said in peroration.
“Can I get you another drink?” asked Walker, thinking to himself it was a long time since he’d said those words on account of spending most of his days with only himself for company.
“No thanks,” Anna said, “very kind of you though.”
At the bar, Walker asked Ange for another pint of heavy and she duly obliged, while trying to explain to Gord where on the map was Andalucia.
“Just telling him it’s in fucking Spain,” said Daz.
“I know where fucking Spain is,” said Gord.
“Somewhere near China,” said Hen.
“You’re taking the piss now,” said Gord.
“Spain could win it,” said Jigger, eager to change tack to the World Cup.
“Y viva Espana,” Gord sang, at last.
“How are you getting to the airport you say?” Hen asked Ange.
“Bus!” she cried for the umpteenth time.
“The wheels on the bus go round and round,” sang Gord.
When Walker returned with his pint to his seat, Anna and Mary had a hand apiece of Harry, who he noticed was shedding a quiet tear.
“Is he alright?” Walker asked, and they said nothing, just silently weeping themselves to see a strong man weakened. Until finally Anna said “Are you alright dad?” And he looked up at her and began to sing…
“The wheels on the bus go round and round
Round and round
Round and round
The wheels on the bus go round and round” and Anna and Mary and Walker and everybody joined in with “All day long.” And as the men at the bar and even Walker gave Harry a clap, Mary wept openly and said to Harry “You do know I love you don’t you?” And he said “I love you too.”
When Walker left the pub he himself was in tears. To think of that poor bugger. Thirty-five years’ graft, strong-armed at the wheel, always a smile and a joke and a well-timed put-down for cheeky schoolkids, pillar of the community, company at the bar. A teller of tales, a font of knowledge not just geographical, a proud man travelled, who knew things about the world, who knew where on the map was Andalucia. Who’d never harmed a soul. A hardworking man who was now hard work, destined for a home with the lingering smell of piss.
And he thought to himself, were they really dregs? Was their conversation so banal, or did it just make their wheels go round? What was so fucking wrong with that? What did it matter? Winning thirty grand or unwinning thirty grand, if England made the final or not, what the fuck did that, or anything, really really matter?