Sunset Over Terraced Houses by P. James Callaghan
I hadn’t seen Conn for years. I thought for a moment that he wouldn’t recognise me as I walked into Wenlock’s. I’d lost a lot of weight since the old days and most of my hair was gone. Conn was sat on the comfy seats against the wall, talking and laughing with someone I didn’t know. His eyes widened as I let go of the door. He threw an arm up and half stood as I neared the table. He hadn’t changed much. Maybe a little more weight to his face, a few grey hairs.
I could tell the stranger was a little younger than us even behind the large black-brown beard. I went to shake Conn’s hand and he pulled me in for a back-slapping hug. I couldn’t remember Conn ever hugging me before.
“Dan,” he called out as if he was surprised to see me. “How’s it going?”
“Good. Good.” I nodded. “You?”
The man with the beard held out his hand like he was showing me he had
one. “Dan!” He was all-day drunk. Conn seemed to be well on his way too.
Beard told me his name, which I instantly forgot. He had a southern accent;
he must’ve come up with Conn. I took his hand: it was like shaking a rubber
glove. “How’s it going?”
“What are you drinking?” I said. Their pints were mainly suds.
“Same again,” Beard slurred. He nodded with a big wet grin.
“Sly Fox, I think it was called.” Conn held out his glass.
I took their glasses and went to the bar. I half knew the barman. Alan or Alex
he was called. He nodded as I approached the bar. He was wearing his
Michael Caine glasses and his black flat cap to the side. He’d converted his
ginger beard into T-bone steak sideburns.
“How’s it going?” I placed the glasses on a fresh beer towel.
“Not three bad. Saw your mate in here on Sunday.”
“What do you fancy?”
“Three pints of Sly Fox please. I’ll try some of your special pork scratchings and all.”
Alex (let’s call him that) pulled the pints and I took them back to the table. Beard was leaning into Conn, murmuring. Conn was laughing. I took my jacket off and went back to the bar for the scratchings.
“How’s tricks then?” I said to Conn as I sat down. “Long time no see.”
“I know. Too long.”
“It’s going to be good to catch up. We haven’t really seen—”
“Fancy getting really pissed today. You with me, Dan?”
“Er yeah, suppose so.”
“Where can we get cocktails? This place doesn’t do cocktails.”
“Er, not sure at this time. We could stay here for a few hours until the other places open.”
“Hey, guess who I saw at the train station?” Conn said.
I shook my head and puffed.
“Really?” Trotter and Conn used to eat woodlice.
“Yeah. The mad bastard. Well, he didn’t look too mad when I saw him. More like an accountant. Don’t think he recognised me.”
“Haven’t seen him since school. It’s funny how people from your past can disappear like that.” Beard looked at Conn, frowning.
“Anyway, enough of my yakking.” Conn said. He turned to Beard. “Can’t be very interesting for you, all this nostalgia.”
Beard shrugged and scratched under his jaw. “I like it in here. Cosy.” The wet grin again.
“Very nice.” Conn said, wiping his lip. “Not bad for northern beer. Very drinkable.”
“No music though,” Beard said.
I looked at him, then at Conn. There was a laptop on the bar playing Creedence Clearwater Revival through small speakers.
“Can you not hear that?” Conn said.
Beard looked up, trying to find the source of the music. “Oh yeah.”
Me and Conn carried on talking. Beard interjected now and again, usually with some non sequitur that made Conn guffaw. To be honest, I was starting to like Beard. He was an oddball, like the types who went into the Cooper’s. It’s probably why I started knocking about with Conn all those years ago. He always went against the grain. When everyone else was trying to look like Kurt Cobain he dressed like an office boy.
“I’m off to wet my shoes,” Beard said and knocked the table as he stood. The pints sloshed and I picked up mine and Conn’s.
Beard walked purposefully towards the foot of the stairs and I picked one of
the last of the scratchings with my finger and thumb.
“I heard about Emma,” Conn said.
That stopped me for a moment. “Yeah.” I looked down at the table. “It was a
shock to everyone.”
There was a thick silence. “Proud Mary” had just finished. “Pagan Baby” was just
getting started. I looked at the picture on the wall behind him. A print of a sunset
over terraced houses.
“She was a great girl, Emma.”
I chomped the pork scratching, savoured its smoky saltiness. “Fuck me,
Alex came and lit a tea light and put it in a little, wax-embossed glass in the
middle of the table. “You want some more?”
Conn looked at him then at me. “No, I think we’re – are we okay?”
“Yeah. No thanks, Alan.”
“Oh yeah. Sorry.”
Beard came weaving across the floor and I stood. “Need a gypsy’s myself,” I said, patting Beard on the shoulder. I climbed the stairs then pushed the gents’ door wide. I stood at the stainless steel trough and noticed some graffiti to the left. Wenlock’s was quite new and pretty classy. I hadn’t noticed any graffiti in the toilets before. It was just a tag, someone’s name that I couldn’t read.
I tutted, buttoned up and washed my hands. As I reached the top of the stairs, Alex was coming up. I thought that he would think I’d left the graffiti.
“Nice beer, that Sly Fox.”
Alex stopped. “If you like that, try a pint of Fustercluck.”
“Yeah, it’s made with cluster hops so – ”
“Think I might,” I said as I reached the top of the stairs.
The music had changed to some Northern Soul tune. “Whose round is it?” I asked them.
“Mine,” Beard said and held a twenty out.
“I’m not going.” I sat down and he pocketed the twenty.
“I’ll go,” Conn said. “I need the loo. What are you having?”
I sat down and drained my glass, looked in the half-pint pot for a scratching. It was just shrapnel and dust. I glanced at Beard; he was glaring at me.
“We should probably move on after this,” I said.
He closed one eye and stuck his bottom lip out and nodded.
“There’s a good pub round the corner from here. Good beer.”
He nodded again.
“Have you been up—”
“I like beer.”
“Do you? Excellent.”
“Here he is!” Beard threw his hand up and cheered quietly. Conn placed the triangle of pints on the wet table. As I looked over my shoulder I noticed Alex at the end of the bar, licking a cigarette paper. He was staring at us.
Beard was trying to lick suds off his moustache. “Need a piss,” he said and leaned on the table. I held it before he could spill any more beer.
Conn steadied him as they passed each other. “You’ve just had one.”
“Need a piss.” He went weaving towards the stairs. Alex clicked his tobacco tin shut and walked towards the back door to smoke his roll-up.
Me and Conn talked for a while and then I saw Beard passing Alex half way down the stairs. Beard was grabbing hold of the handrail as if he was on deck in a storm. When he reached the bottom he made the sign for smoking and turned back along the stairs to the back door.
After a while Alex came downstairs and over to the table.
“Nice pint, that,” I said.
“Told you, didn’t I?”
“Floral,” Conn said.
Alex nodded. He picked up the last of the glasses and said: “Which one of you’s the poet?” He was smiling.
Me and Conn looked at each other. We probably both knew what he was talking about. “I don’t want to be a dick or anything but it’s me that’s going to have to scrub it off.”
“Oh, the graffiti,” Conn said.
“It’s fresh. Must be one of you.” Beard had walked up behind Alex and was inching round him to sit down. “You’re the only ones in here.”
“Well, I didn’t do it.” Conn looked at Beard. “Did you do it?”
Beard frowned and shook his head. Then they both looked at me.
“I didn’t fucking do it.” I looked at Alex who was still smiling. “Well I didn’t. What’s it say anyway?”
“Go and have a look,” Alex said and walked off with the glasses. “Just don’t do any more, okay?” He was all right was Alex.
Me and Conn had another sip and went upstairs. Conn laughed like a girl when we walked into the toilets. There was more graffiti on the wall. In small capital letters it read:
“It’s not funny.”
“It is.” Conn was making a strange whining sound. “It’s fucking hilarious.”
“I have to come in here. I’m known.”
“It’s the best graffiti ever.” He was losing his breath. He bent over and held his knees.
“We’ll have to clean it up.”
The door swung open and Alex walked in with some detergent spray and a scouring pad. Still smiling.
Conn straightened up. He’d calmed down a bit. “We’ll clean it up,” he said.
“I’ll give you some money,” I said. I remember holding out a ten or a twenty.
Alex shook his head. “It’s quite amusing but I don’t think the boss’ll see it that way.”
“Where’s your mate anyway?” I said to Conn. “It was obviously him that did it.”
“My mate?” he said.
Me and Conn tried our best to scrub the MICKEY BOLLOCKs off the wall then went downstairs. Beard was gone. We drained our pints and went to Rusty’s. We drank two-for-one cocktails and talked about Emma and the old days.