Dan: Ubiquitous Flashback Sequence
I was seventeen years old and working a Youth Training Scheme in a plumbing supplies warehouse on the outskirts of Doncaster. Friday Flyer, early finish. Me and two other apprentices, Tommy and Hywel, caught the Little Nipper bus into town. We made a beeline for The Railway Tavern, a rundown old pub with a half-blind landlord, known for its tolerance of underage drinkers.
Hywel was the youngest and the smallest, shorter than any sentence I could use to describe him. As such, it was his practice to head to the bar first, confront the issue head on, brazen it out rather than skulking sheepishly behind us bigger lads looking guilty. Not that it made much difference in The Railway, where the fat, gamey old landlord would top a gripe water bottle up with vodka if you so desired it.
Something caught his attention in the backroom and he paused on the way.
"Heyup, Roberts!" he cried. "Looks like your mam's in!"
I turned to see her, asleep on the pool table at two o’clock in the afternoon. She was snoring lightly, an eyebrow twitching intermittently. One shoe fallen to the floor, next to a deserted and upturned raffia shopping bag full of bottles. A lone tin of Tesco Value soup had made an abortive roll for freedom and now nestled undetected under a corner pocket. Mulligatawny. Bangs of lank hair smashing into her silica gel mouth.
Hywel didn’t know. He was from the other side of Doncaster. The marginally better side. We had only met through work. He had meant it as a joke. But Tommy knew, he and I had grown up together. I looked from the prone form on the table to him. His face burned postbox red, to offset the gangrenous tint of mine.
A group of Council workers in hi-vis vests were huddled around the fruit machine in the backroom. One of their number was returning from the toilet, still packing himself away. You could peg him as the jester of the group all too easily, a belled hat traded in for a back to front baseball cap, a paint spattered crude slogan on his t shirt. One who would sport a Disney Store tie for a day at the races. As he passed the pool table, he deftly flicked the hem of her crumpled skirt up at the back, laughing and mock-running to the safety of his crew, who had obviously dared him to do it.
He didn’t need to run. She slept right through it.
Mission accomplished. He had successfully humiliated an alcoholic. Bravo, sir. The other men greeted him like he had just shot a tiger. But their uproarious cheers and laughter slowly died down into silence and dissolved into wistful head shakes as they regarded her still unperturbed frame.
Not mine. Not anymore.
"View any better from your side lads?" the Joker asked, losing his audience, looking to us. Working the room now.
From their position at the other side of the table they couldn’t see what we saw. The cellulite, a slight, blueberried rash at the top of one thigh. Gunmetal grey nylon knickers caked with spots of dried blood.
My hand instinctively closed around a heavy pint pot, my glare fixed upon the highly visible buffoon playing to the court. Tommy’s mammoth hand closed on top of mine. He leaned in close and whispered:
"Let it go, Dan," he said. "It’s the weekend."
We both knew all too well what he meant. Police cells are a lot noisier on a Friday night, their inhabitants drunker and angrier, their floors never any warmer. Then he turned to Hywel, raising his voice. "This place is fucking rank. Let’s get some tinnies and sit by the canal. It’s nice out."
Hywel was still staring over at her, with a look of complete revulsion on his face. "Yeah," he said limply, "Vamos."
We made our way toward the door, but just before we slipped out, Tommy headed towards the backroom. Approaching the stilled life he stopped, taking her in for a moment, with an embalmer’s appraising eye. With the kind of startling grace that big people often possess, he gently removed the dreamcatching strand of hair from her mouth and brushed it back against her cheek.
I remembered then how light and fine her hair had once been. Chestnut strands of it falling through my shrivelled fingers like ambitions as she carried me down the stairs, after bath time, when I was a small child. I was swaddled in warm towels, drawn from my favourite hiding place. The airing cupboard, rumbling heart of the house. Dried gently in front of the living room’s gas fire.
Arms up, little soldier.
That done, Tommy smoothed her skirt down and fixed the labourers with a threatening stare that shouted:
He was a big lad for his age, butting past the six foot barrier even then, and slowly growing just as wide through a steady diet of Spar Pick n’ Mix and sparring with pricks and Micks. His sweet tooth contrasted sharply with a sour disposition directed toward anyone who got on the wrong side of him. He was maybe the one seventeen year old in the world at that time who could stare down a saloon full of navvies. Joker returned to his friends, and their chastened gazes dipped first to their shoes and then back to the bandit’s mesmeric light and noise. The fat man seated behind the bar, however, watched these events with interest over the top of his half-moon glasses.
"Do you know her?" he barked, even his voice fat. "Cos I’ve got a pool tournament tonight and she’s slavering all over me fucking baize."
"Nah," I called out, already halfway through the swing door. "We don’t know her."