Friday, May 4, 2007

A Woman Scorn'd

Jimmy keeps his eyes fixed on the woman in front of him as he cups his hand to light a cigarette.

"Let's say - hypothetically speaking - I can help you. A service like this does not come cheap."

The woman returns his gaze.

"I'm not stupid," she answers, "And I'm not offering peanuts. How much are we talking about?"

Jimmy shrugs, "The guy's no one famous. He's easy to find. And if it's done right, suspicion shouldn't fall on anyone known to him."

He gestures to a deep-cleavaged barmaid for a pen, writes for a second on a napkin and hands it, folded, to the woman. She opens it and her eyebrows disappear into her fringe as she reads the contents. Her blond hair falls in long straight locks over green eyes as she stares down at the paper.

As she reads, Jimmy's gaze runs over her face and slips down over the rest of her slim body. He takes a long drag on his cigarette and pulls his eyes away from her as he speaks.

"Listen love. It's like this. Your boyfriend's pissed you off-"

At this, the woman barks a laugh and Jimmy stares at her perfectly white, small teeth. There is no humour in the sound.

"Or whatever," he continues, "You want your revenge and all, but this isn't something you do lightly. The price tag means you've gotta be sure about this. It's a lot of money."

The woman's tight smile disappears as he speaks. "I am sure," she insists with a long glare.

There is a short silence. Jimmy holds her gaze as smoke curls in layers on the air between them, until finally she looks away.

"This guy must have done something pretty bad. What he do? Sleep with your mother?" Jimmy says, putting out his cigarette into an overflowing ashtray.

When the woman answers, her voice is low and hard.

"That would have been easier to deal with. At least my sister's attractive."

The woman lifts her head and for a second, thrusts her chin forward. Jimmy almost laughs, but her brightly shining eyes stop the sound and the urge in his throat. He motions again at the barmaid and orders two shots of vodka, which are quickly placed on the bar. Moments later both glasses are empty and two more replace them.

"Wanna talk about it?" Jimmy asks, lighting another cigarette. Without asking she takes one from the packet and slips the lighter from his hand before he has the chance to offer.

"No. Not really."

Again, she thrusts forward her chin as she lights her cigarette, as if daring him. Jimmy takes a step nearer and her eyes widen slightly. He lowers his voice.

"If you say this is what you want, this is what you want. God knows, I'm nobody's guardian angel," he grins, "But I know a lot of people tougher than you, however angry you think you might be, and I'm telling you something here for your own good. You want this done? You really want it? You got to be sure. This is not a reversible procedure, you understand?"

She opens her mouth as if to speak, her breath coming too fast, her eyes bright from the vodka and emotion. Her shoulders suddenly drop and she closes her mouth and starts to cry as she stares at the bar. Jimmy sighs.

"He utterly humiliated me. You understand? Sa-" she breaks off, "This bloke. Has run off with a fucking geek for fuck's sake. She's a teaching assistant from St Mead's. She's no one! And he's left me for her.

Again, she makes a sharp humourless sound.

“He left me. They were carrying on in front of me. And everybody knows. Everybody! He's the head barman in my fucking local – so everyone knows. And I mean,” she raises her eyes and sweeps her hand over the length of her body, “Look at me."

Jimmy nods and obeys, eyebrows raised.

"What would he see in her? She doesn't wear make up. She doesn't even work out-"

Her speech abates into quiet, furious sobs. It takes all Jimmy's concentration not to laugh. Instead, he pulls her to him, feeling her body at first tense and then collapse into his embrace. He lowers his face into her hair for a brief moment and lets her cry.

"He's got to pay," she insists into Jimmy's shirt.

"Yeah, sure lovely." Jimmy's voice is tired. "They've all got to pay. But are you sure you do?"

She raises her head and steps back, brushing carefully at her eyes. "What do you mean?"

"I think I may have another idea," Jimmy answers. "You want another drink?"

A week later, the two of them sit in the quiet corner of a busy pub. Although the pub is almost full, a strange hush hangs over the crowd. Local regulars dart surreptitious glances their way, no one seemingly prepared to stare openly at the sight of the tiny blonde, nestling in the embrace of the local Mafioso. To each other, many of the locals whisper – though not within earshot of the scowling barman - that they have never seen Lucy look so happy.

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Quiet ones

Photo by Jeff Maion, whose work you can find at

From my seat in the corner I can see everything that happens in here. I know this pub better than I know my own flat, I've probably more in common with it, too. This pub has nothing to prove and no one it needs to win over. It rejects the modern, shiny, city-centre refinery - the walls lined with leather sofas, contemporary art, or statues of Buddha now required to attract, impress or intimidate its guests. I doubt this pub has changed much in the last fifty years, in fact I'm sure the landlord has the photos to prove it. It's the sort of place where regulars always occupy the same seats. A local.

Take our little group of teachers and teaching assistants from the local comp, for example. Each Friday you'll find us in the corner of this pub, only five minutes from the school gates we've fought a week to leave behind. My colleagues don't interest me much. It's easy to nod along and tune out to the chronicles of their suburban lives, each week the same chat, the same clothes, the same drinks. I'd love it if one of them, reaching across a dozen empty pint glasses for the peanuts, announced, "I killed the wife last night. Twenty years of marriage. I've put her body under the patio. Last time she'll turn off Top Gear."

Don't misunderstand me, I don't dislike any of them. They just bore the shit out of me. It doesn't matter. I don't come here for them, after all.

It's the barman, Sam, who interests me. Small-framed and dark-haired, Sam has the perfect combination of vulnerable geekiness and masculine taut muscle. He is equally at home discussing the finer mysteries of quantum physics, as he is lifting surly drunks from their bar stools and sending them home. Sweet, strong Sam. It's a shame about his wife, Lucy.

Lucy is the same size as Sam (the one thing I can see they have in common). She is small, slim to the point of disappearing and wears more make-up than I thought one face could stand. On disco nights, if the spotlight lands on Lucy she actually glows orange. Her slim hands, covered in gold sovereign rings have nails like mountain peaks at sunset. The first time I saw her at the bar, screaming at Sam for breaking a date when he had to work an extra shift, I couldn't take my eyes off those scarlet nails. I often wonder how she doesn't do a damage to herself when she goes to the loo.

It's a mystery to everyone, beyond the obvious, why Sam married Lucy. I've heard tales from the regulars that she was 'the quiet type' when they met at college, shy, a little nervous. Apparently it all changed when she started training as a beauty therapist. The men tolerate her because she looks good in tight clothes and the women ignore her (as much as any woman can ignore an alpha female) because she ignores them. Lucy is such a straightforward conception of the male psyche, that she sees no need to talk to women. This lack of camraderie may prove her undoing. The thing is, if you don't understand women, you'll never know when one is about to steal your man out from under your nose.

Lucy hasn't noticed me at all. I wear almost no makeup. I don't strut, or preen. I never pose. My nails are short, clipped and unpainted. If she had ever noticed me at all, she probably dismissed me as a hermaphrodite, or some kind of androgyne. So, Lucy has hardly noticed that I almost invariably get the drinks from the bar on Friday's. She didn't see the danger in my early conversations with Sam as we noted the same interests in politics, psychology and science. Because she rarely reads herself, Lucy thinks nothing of the novels we frequently exchange over the bar, or the conversations that stretch longer and longer into the evening, continuing as Sam wanders from pump to pump, serving customers, and calling questions to me over his shoulder.

Most importantly, Lucy has not noticed Sam's gaze linger on me as I sit faking conversation with the others, noting the amount in each of our glasses, measuring the moments until I head back up to the bar for a refill, while he stands quietly, polishing glasses.

No, Lucy has not noticed a thing. She will roll her eyes when Sam tells her of the conference in Scotland next week on Contemporary Psychology, and how he has swapped shifts to attend. She will whine as he tells her it is only for two days, purse her lips when he points out he rarely gets to do this sort of thing since Uni. She will ask only 'Why not?' when Sam states he does not want to run a bar forever. And Sam will begin to think, if he has not already, of the distance between he and Lucy. He will notice the differences between them and he will wonder.

When I meet Sam at the conference next week he will wonder again - after I've explained the terrible mix-up with the rooms, the inability of the hotel to cope with such a large number of guests, and I've offered to sleep on the couch or the floor. Sam will wonder why he has stayed with Lucy so long, and when we've had a little too much to drink and we're sat in the deserted bar in the half-light talking and laughing, he will wonder if it's too late to start again.

I scoop up the glasses, sighing, as the others explode into laughter, recounting scenes from last night's 'Fast Show' and head to the bar, where Sam waits. He catches my eye as I approach and gently smiles. I place myself carefully in Lucy's path as she leaves the loos. She smacks carelessly into my shoulder and tuts loudly, barely glancing at me as I apologize to her retreating wiggle. I watch Sam frown in her direction as Lucy crosses the bar.

I almost feel sorry for Lucy. Almost.