‘Brothir, seyede Sir Launcelot, wyte you well I am full loth to departe out of thys reyllme, but that the Quene hath defended me so hyghly that mesemmeth she wyll nevir be my gode ladye as she hath beene.’- Malory
‘Have you had her round your gaff yet? No? Well, don’t.’
Selwyn’s bedsit was a notorious eyesore and health hazard, even by the undemanding standards of the after-hours crew from The Swan. But located equidistant as it was between The New Inn and the High Street it made a convenient stop-off point for a pick me up between venues, and we’d all been there at some time. It did seem a trifle harsh for Tony to be publicly denigrating Selwyn’s shortcomings as a house keeper, but Tone was in Tough Love mode and Selwyn had a new bird.
‘Cast your mind forward eighteen months’ Tone continued as Selwyn shuffled his feet under the table and looked imploringly at his empty pint pot ‘You and her have signed the lease on a new house; Pickford’s have just unloaded all her furniture, ornaments and belongings and you’ve upended your two binbags full of crap and plugged your Playstation in, and now she’s off for another two months to the Afghan.’
Selwyn’s new bird was a nurse, and not just a nurse: a senior staff nurse. And not just a senior staff nurse, she was also a volunteer for an international medical charity that dispatched nurses to hot spots around the globe. Iran, Rwanda, Liberia and Afghanistan had all benefited from the ministrations of this angel, and we could only assume that in Selwyn she saw a humanitarian disaster of similar magnitude.
‘So tell me, Sel, how do you intend to greet her on her return from Afghanistan’s searing plains? A Chinky and a two month pile of dirty laundry? “You just enjoy your dinner, love. You can start on all that later.”‘ Tone jerked his thumb over his shoulder at an imaginary tottering pile of unwashed crocks and soiled underwear. He paused. ‘Answer to a maiden’s prayer, isn’t it?’
Since his old mum had died, Selwyn had lived a dismal existence of shared houses, takeaways and trips to The Last Surviving Launderette. This new bird offered, perhaps, a reprieve from infinite squalor in a little room and an alternative to a lonely dusty death.
‘You gotta learn to clean, boy. Learn to cook.’ Tone’s own domestic habits were fastidious, his housekeeping precise and prompt. Orderly bachelorhood was his thing and his kitchen gleamed, but nobody had ever seen him eat so much as a pub bap much less whip up a three-course on the hob a la Jamie Oliver. Emboldened by a night’s recreational insomnia, I interjected.
‘I’m talking about him, mate, not me.’ Tone’s eyes whipped round to mine. ‘He’s the one wants to shack up with a bird. He’s the one living up to his arse in his own shite. He’s the one needs someone too look after him in his twilight years. Not me, mate.’
We hadn’t met her yet, although John Paul claimed to have once seen the happy couple crossing the road by The Yenton, and Sel had only told us the previous evening that they were thinking of moving in together. We had been on the lash since yesterday but the subject had resurfaced more than once during the long night’s journey into morning opening hours, and here we were back at our starting point.
I thought about getting another round in. Selwyn was humbly listening to Tone, whose jaw was starting to clench when not actively being used for speech; although in fairness he was becoming more voluble as the morning wore on. Dave the Paperboy was still with us, but happily withdrawn and giggling to himself. I patted the hip pocket of my 501s to make sure the slim paper wrap was still in place, and headed towards the karzi. The new day beckoned bright with promise.
I made my way back to the table carrying a tray burdened with pint pots, short chasers and a couple of over-optimistic bags of crisps. I disbursed the libations each according to their recipient, and split the crisp packets open and placed them in the middle of the table, tacitly implying their availability as a communal resource. Everybody who wasn’t currently orbiting a planet in the Crab Nebula silently raised their shot glass or pint pot in acknowledgement, but studiously ignored the crisps. Mildly affronted I took a wodge of Cheese ‘n’ Onion and popped it into my mouth. It had the exact flavour of wallpaper paste.
The thing about The Swan was that it had no windows. Bar the fugitive ray that occasionally entered from outside as the heavy front doors opened and shut, all light was artificial. The bulbs in the wall sconces were either dud or of a low wattage, and the only other illumination was a harsh strip of neon placed above the mirror which ran behind the full length of the bar and which allowed the staff to conduct their transactions with some degree of confidence.
The neon was harsh enough to reduce anybody standing between the viewer and itself to a mere silhouette, but overall the ambience was one of faint puddles of light punctuating an otherwise Stygian gloom. There were pockets of absolute sticky-carpeted blackness, where quick drubbings could happen before the bouncers were even aware that anything was afoot, and what light there was gave the faces of the patrons a sallow and deathly cast.
Just then Tony put his pint down, and stared fixedly at something over my shoulder. At first I thought he had spotted a rube walking away from the Deal Or No Deal fruit machine having inserted a healthy tenner for no payout, a deposit that Tony regarded as his by right for the harvesting. But as I craned round I saw Bobby Cool muscling his way in through through The Swan’s double doors, using his walking stick as a fulcrum to lever his gammy leg through the gap.
His walking stick was the first thing you noticed about Bobby. It was a memento of an occasion in Bobby’s callow youth when he had injudiciously allowed his leg to remain in between the road surface and a 740cc parallel-twin oil cooled motorcycle engine which, although now horizontal, was still traveling onwards at about 50mph, as the subsequent Police accident report estimated. When his mates turned back to see what what was up they found Bobby standing nonchalantly on the verge with the right leg of his jeans shredded from knee to ankle, and his calf muscle looking like a half-seared pack of minced beef. He’d even managed to right his bike again, hence the nickname Cool.
In the halcyon days before the children, and the exponential increase of paternal time spent on the lash, Mr and Mrs Cool had occupied their summer weekends touring the country in their two-berth caravan. Bobby had saved commemorative stickers from each town and campsite and, after the two-berth was standing green and mildewed on the block paving and Mrs Cool and the children were resident in Chelmsley Wood, he stuck the stickers in a neat line chronologically from Bets-y-Coed at the ferrule to Whitby three-quarters of the way towards the curve of the handle. From Whitby to the rounded tip at the end of the handle Bobby had painted longitudinal stripes of claret and blue, for The Villa.
“I’ll Secret-bloody-Squirrel him, if he comes over here.” Tony said, not too loudly and apropos of absolutely nothing that I knew about. We weren’t surprised to see Bobby. Word was that he was barred from every joint within a reasonable walking distance of the High Street but Ronni, the landlady, was in hock to some Yardies for Charlie and she was holding open house at The Swan.
I turned back to Tony. With elaborate unconcern he took out a pen and began filling in a Ladbrokes slip. Bobby and Tone had history. It was spoken-unspoken that they could tolerate each other’s presence, even socialise at certain times, but there were caveats. A tide ran between them the ebb and flow of which we knew, but the imperatives behind it were obscure. Bobby in a crowd was different man to Bobby on his own; and Tony at ten in the morning was a different man to Tony at ten at night.
I looked over my shoulder again. Bobby had gone down the steps to the big area with the Sky TV, and was berating Albanian Elvis about something on the screen. Desiring some fresh air, I rolled myself a cigarette and went out to stand by the municipal flower beds in the precinct. I exhaled luxuriously among the pigeon crap and the takeaway cartons. It was going to be a long afternoon.
Even then I knew I wasn’t going to be there for ever. I never stuck around anywhere for too long nor, quite frankly, did I think I ever would. But it was OK for the time I was there, man. It was OK.
© Bobo 2019
The Goodnight Vienna Audio file