‘It’s now or never Cliff, you know what I’m saying?’
I nodded. I had no idea.
‘What it is, if you don’t do it soon, she will. And then the shit-spreading starts, as you well know.’
I nodded again. Come to think of it, I don’t think I actually stopped while George had been speaking. His thick fingers made the pint glass look small as he drained its contents, pushing back his chair with a scrape and a grunt. George is a big man. His beard is greying now but still as bushy as it always was. He smokes too much though, and the nicotine has yellowed the whiskers around his lips and given him a woody campsite smell that mingles with his general aroma of stale beer and sweat. To my mind, the beard and his girth made him look like a kind of off-season Santa. I suppose that must make me Rudolf. I watched his broad back as he waddled across the room to the bar to get a round in. He usually dresses the same as me – a worn, casual suit; cheap loafers and a tie like we used to wear at the office, before they laid everyone off.
We sat at our regular table in the Crown, next to the fruit machine at the back. Up until just then had been supping our pints as we often did on these rainy Saturday afternoons. A usual day ran through from midday to about five or six o‘clock, and for the most part we’d just sit and read the headlines to each other while Old Derek (who in reality couldn’t have been much more than my age, 53) cleared the tables ready for what he optimistically called ‘the evening rush’ . We’re usually long gone by then, and I contented myself with watching Derek clean his bar, his collection of chins wobbling away as he buffed at the brass handles. Today was a usual day.
The Crown itself has stood on this spot, on the Gaines Road, Stanfield for at least as long as I’ve been alive. My father used to bring me here before I was old enough to drink. We never had a dog at home for him to walk, so I ended up being the excuse for his sessions. What he told mum I’ll never know, but we used to spend hours here, playing dominos or poker with his mates. Sometimes he’d give me some of his beer and sometimes he’d just give me a hard look, like an Easter Island statue. Those times are easiest to remember, because I’d have to be focused and ready for when his hand snaked out towards me. Not that I resent him for it now, of course, it’s just how things were back then. You got on with it.
I spent more and more time in the Crown after the old man died. It isn’t such a bad place. Close and comfortable, and I know everyone there. The carpet’s that garish leafy colour that helps to disguise the stains, and once you get near the bar it wears down to nothing – a blackened patch of congealed booze and underlay. There are a few tables set up around the walls, and a larger booth with sofas, but the pool tables take up most of the space inside. One has red baize, and I had a long row with George about what on earth kind of game you play on red baize. He must have told me ten times, but I still don’t remember what it was. Anyway, no-one has used the tables since George discovered that a leg on one of them was too short. We had a go at using folded-up newspapers to level it off, but it’s still off on the piss. Every time you take the triangle off the balls just slide off – you can pocket a red before you’ve even touched a cue. So we ended up in the far corner, to the left of the bar and tucked away behind the fruity.
George came back from the bar holding another two pints. He eased his bulk into the creaky chair, pushed a white stick into his mouth and lit one end. The roll-up was pretty acrid. The smoke looked like it smelled, and hung over the table like a pall, partially obscuring my view of George, Derek and the tinsel. I hunched in my chair, leaning over the pint in front of me and trying to hide in the fug. I hoped George would forget and we could talk again about the football, or the asylum lot; about his world rather than the state of mine. No such luck.
‘So, Cliff, like I was saying, you’ve got to do it.’
‘But George,’ I held my hands up, palms out; in the hope he’d notice the gesture and change to subject. Again, no such luck. He sucked on the roll-up and I watched it shorten by a few millimeters. The smoke rolled across the table, creating eddies and whorls where it touched knots and notches in the darkly lacquered wood.
‘Don’t you “but” me Clifford, this is important. I’ll help you out wherever I can, but you’ve got to meet me halfway.’
‘Look,’ George’s tone softened, ‘I can’t make the decision for you, I know that and I wouldn’t try. How long have we known each other Cliff?’
I hunched up even more then, and I patted some tobacco into a one of those new thinner papers, rolling it as I spoke.
‘I found a letter yesterday,’ the words seemed to leave a space behind as they left my mouth. ‘In Janet’s bedside cabinet. I don’t know who wrote it. It was in blue ink. It’s funny how you remember things isn’t it George? I mean, there I am, holding evidence of my own wife’s adultery and all I can remember from it was the colour of the bleedin’ ink and a “thanks for the cufflinks“. Gold with a carving of a tree on ’em apparently. Oak. You’d think I’d be able to tell you the little pet names and the descriptions of what they did. You’d think I’d be able to remember that, wouldn’t you? George?’ My question jolted him out of his contemplation of the middle-distance. I remembered his earlier comment.
‘Do you really think there’ll be any shit-spreading George?’
‘Is the Pope a bloody Catholic?’
‘Got a light?
‘Yeah,’ He passed me a battered copper Zippo. The flame guttered as I held it too close to the cigarette. The end of the roll-up blackened and I had to chuck it into the dirty-blue Fosters ashtray in the centre of the table.
‘Ah, sorry Cliff, fucking thing’s been playing up all week.’
‘It’s fine, really,’ I offered by way of reply, despite the feeling of spreading heat on my cheeks. I always blush. George never does. He doesn’t seem to think too much about things past, either. I do.
‘So are you still seeing the Duchess, George?’
George had spent the last few weeks courting a woman, and had been very careful to tell me only a very few details. It was pretty frustrating – after all, hadn’t I poured my little heart out to him about my Janet? But mostly the frustration was from not knowing. I’d always, for as long as we’d been friends, known what George was up to, who he got up to it with and when they did it. It struck me as a bit unfair. He didn’t even want to give us a name. Me and Derek the landlord had spent what felt like forever grilling George, trying to get him to reveal the tiniest bit of news, without success. Then I caught him out! I gave him a talk about how our friendship should mean more than a woman. That slowed him down a bit, and he seemed to think long and hard before he gave us a name. The way he cast about for it seemed a bit suspicious, and he wouldn’t elaborate. But I didn’t mind. I just called her the Duchess, he kept on feeding me lines, and the world carried on turning.
‘Look, Cliff, I know we’re good friends, and that’s why I’m asking you now to let it go.’ He seemed upset enough for me to know that any further questioning would only make him clam up. Instead I changed the subject.
‘Oi, Derek,’ I had to raise my voice so the old man could hear it. He looked up from his brass-rubbing. ‘Have you got a Sun?’ Derek grunted by way of reply, and chucked over a copy. Despite it being only that day’s edition, the pages were yellowing and someone had already cut out the coupon. I thanked Derek, who grunted again and went back to making his wattle shake.
‘Oh you’re a right charmer, you are!’ said a woman’s voice. The source of the voice was hidden behind the door of the men’s lavatory, but I knew who it was. Michelle, up to her magnolias in bleach, Jeyes fluid and banter. She bustled into the room and roundly castigated everyone in it. I parried her as best I could, but she knows I always blush.
‘I’d charm you if you’d only let me, Michelle love.’
‘I bet you would you dirty old sod!’ She said it like an extra from one of those old seventies ‘Confessions Of…’ films. I half expected Robin Askwith to pop up any minute. Still, the ploy worked and she bustled straight on past us, through the doorway with the hanging ribbons behind the bar.
‘Here we go George,’ I opened the newspaper to the horoscopes. George was a Libra.
‘Uh oh, better watch yourself,’ I joked. ‘Says here that you’re about to embark on a difficult journey. They always bloody say that, don’t they? Here – “a friend will help you on the road to recovery with the gift of self-sacrifice”. Bloody hell George!’
‘And look here,’
‘It says that-’
I stopped speaking and looked across the table at my friend. He seemed a lot further away, suddenly. When he next spoke, his voice seemed to come from down a long tunnel. The sort that usually has a nasty surprise at the end of it.
‘I think I’m ready to tell you about the Duchess.’
The way he went on you’d think she really was a Duchess. George was completely smitten with the woman, that much was clear. For my part, I’ve never had much luck with the fairer sex. Apart from my wife Janet, that is.
‘The thing is,’ George continued, ’is that she’s married.’
‘Oi oi! While the cat’s away, eh Georgie boy?’ I smiled and gave him a wink. His gaze lowered to the ashtray where my previously incinerated cigarette still smouldered gently.
‘Oh come on George, give us a grin. It can’t be that bad. Is she separated? I’m sure once the divorce comes through-’
‘But that’s just it Cliff. She won’t do it. She says that unless her husband divorces her, she’ll keep believing that one day things will change.’
What was that supposed to mean? Why is it when people are in these melodramatic situations there’s always some clod who goes mincing around saying that ‘things will change‘. God, the woman sounded wet. She sounded like exactly the sort of woman I’d avoid. You’d never catch me getting married to a dishrag. Not again. Janet was like that. All passive aggression and no self-esteem. But divorce? Never! Half my bloody house? Fat chance. George cleared his throat.
‘She says she loves me, but she has to do her duty by her husband. I told her that she didn’t need to be old fashioned like that. “It’s 1998” I told her.’
‘That’s women for you.’ I tried to sound wise and knowledgeable.
George nodded, but I wasn’t sure if he’d heard what I said. As he leaned forward to stub out his roll-up, his suit sleeve rode up his arm perhaps a fraction of an inch. Looking back now I can recall everything about that moment: The beer and spittle in Georges beard; little bobbles on the material of his suit jacket casting shadows in the watery sunshine; the dragon-shape of his cheap brown smoke hanging in the air; the tiny curl of his lip when he smiled at what I said; the gold designs on the cufflinks, embellished with fine, tiny, perfectly carved Oak trees.
He sat staring at the ashtray, and I just sat like that, staring at him for a long while before either of us spoke again.
‘You have to do it, Cliff,’ George whispered.
‘It’s now or never.’