Friday, February 16, 2007

Chapter 4

In Liverpool it was a self-evident truth that ending a night’s drinking in the Aquaba was an admission of defeat. Run by Somalis for students, actors and other late night losers it was the last resort of the lonely and displaced. Free in, pub prices and few fights, if only because most of its clientele were searching for a different kind of oblivion, the Aquaba was a twilight zone of familiar faces and meaningless, drunken conversations with people who remained transient strangers no matter how many times you met them. Bogart and Bacall looked down from badly painted murals on boozers and losers stuck in a repetitive waltz of late night drinking and casual liaisons.

'Fuck.! Is it my round again?' Timmy protested loudly as we lined up against the bar.

'It's alright, la, I'll get deese. Pint a Guinness and a pint a Harp, Loreena'. Timmy and I looked at each other and then around to the source of the voice.

We both turned to face our benefactor. It was Hatter McVie. Another Liverpool character. He'd never bought me a drink before in all the time I'd known him, but he grew up in the same street as Timmy so I assumed the charity was directed towards him rather than me. He looked at us from under a broad brimmed straw panama. The last time I'd seen him he'd been wearing an old bowler with a ragged brim. This was a definite improvement, if a little unseasonal. His wire frame glasses glinted in the light from behind the bar counterpointing the darkness on our side of it. His teeth, framed by a neatly trimmed beard, were yellow with nicotine.

'Alright, Hatter. How's yer mam? The old lady was only asking after her the other day' Timmy said.

'Bearing up, lad. You know how it is with that Alzheimer's. One day she thinks I'm me dad, the next she doesn't know me from Adam.'

Five times married, Hatter had been living with his mum for the past few years. Sometime poet, sometime pimp, he had run pubs whose stay-behinds were legendary even by Liverpool standards, but Hatter lived a quiet life now. Part of the Liverpool scene when there was one, now he was on the dole and looking after his old one. The drinks came and Timmy and I raised our glasses to him. He nodded in acknowledgement.

Someone waved to Timmy from across the room. He left me at the bar to join them. I leaned back and watched him walk across the bare wood floor. Humphrey Bogart looked down on both of us.

'I heard about Tom. Fuckin' tragic that.' It was Hatter again. I looked across to him and he signalled me to draw closer with flick of his head. I moved along the bar towards him. 'I don't know what you've heard la, but it was no fucking accident.'

'What d'you mean?'

'Fuck me. 'ave you got cotton wool in yer ears, kid? I mean' and he spoke the words slowly with the deliberation one would use with a child or a deaf person, 'it was no-fucking-accident'

'How d'you know that?'

'I don't know it. I just heard dat's all.'

'Who from?'

'Hey lad, ask no questions and you'll be told no lies, alright? But a little bird told me that Geraghty was poking 'is nose where it didn't belong. You know wha' I mean?' I shook my head

' Tom did that all his life, wee man. It never got him killed.' Exasperation crossed his face. He could have been telling the truth but I just didn't want to know right then.

'Hey, I'm fucked if I know. I'm just telling yer wha' I 'eard, alright. I thought you might be interested since he was your mucker, like. I mean he was never going to win popularity prizes, now was 'e?'

'Yeah, but...' He interrupted.

'But nothing, pal. All I 'eard was that someone wanted your mate Tom off the case, as thee say in the best detective fiction. To tell the truth, I only mentioned it because I thought you might know 'oo he'd been upsettin'.

'I've not seen Tom this last nine months. We'd had a falling out. I don't know what he was at.'

'Well anyway, someone had 'is cards marked, that's wha' I 'eard. I'm just telling yer.'

I thought of all the people Tom had put away in his time. He'd been off the force ten years before he died, but memories, like prison sentences, could be long. And in Liverpool scores always get settled sooner or later.

'So where did you hear this about Tom anyway?'

'Hey lad, I might be cabbage lookin' bur I'm not green, alright? I just heard from someone who heard from someone who for all I fuckin'' know heard from someone else, ok? You know what this town's like, you've fuckin' well lived here long enough. I don't know who 'e'd got on the wrong side of and even if I did, I wouldn't fuckin' well tell you. I've got the old girl to look after.' He turned away and sipped from his drink.

'Alright, kid, alright. So when did you hear this?'

'Look, la, I just heard, dat's all. When, where or who is my business and what fuckin' difference does it make anyway?'

'It makes a difference to me, so it does.'

'Look, pal, Geraghty's dead. I can think of half a dozen who might be laughing at that thought. You're not going to bring him back, so just sup your drink and stop midering me. Alright?'

'Aye, alright. But if your little bird starts tweeting again, you let me know, ok Hatter?'

'I suppose so, but I'm not promising.'

'Loreena, a Guinness and a Harp, and one for himself here.'

I paid for the drinks and carried the two pints over to the table where Timmy was chatting animatedly with two women. Functioning on auto-pilot I placed the drinks on the table and didn't pay too much attention to them. I was still digesting Hatter's words. My thoughts were interrupted by Timmy's voice.

'Alright U, for a minute there I thought I was going to have to buy meself a drink. This is Alison and this is Sarah.This is me mate Ulick, bur 'is friends call him U.' He indicated the two women with separate nods of his head. They were instantly recognisable as students, one in her early twenties, the other maybe five years or a decade older. The older one was dark haired with white skin. Her cheeks were slightly flushed, with alcohol I guessed. The other was fair-skinned and pink-cheeked in a definitely Saxon way.

'What should we call him?' the dark one, Sarah, asked. She was very pretty and her eyes were a sharp blue. She reminded me of Linda. But there wasn't a woman who didn't these days. She had an English accent, from somewhere in the West Midlands.

'Depends 'ow friendly you're planning to be' said Timmy with a leer. 'Excuse me, I'm just going to rinse the prince'. The two women giggled. He rose from the table with the steady deliberation of a man just on the wrong side of a few pints and walked back across the room. Their glasses were empty.

'Will you take a drink?' I asked, at a loss for anything else to say.

'Oh yes please' said the blonde. 'Mine's a cider and Sarah is drinking Beck's.' Her diction was crisp with the received pronunciation of the Home Counties and minor public school. I walked to the bar and ordered the drinks. Timmy joined me at the bar on his way back from the jacks.

'Which one d'you want, mate? They're both up for a bir o' crack.'

Drink never affected Timmy in any obvious way when he was manic. I only saw ever him drunk when he was depressed. In this phase he could drink all night and still remain articulate and funny. I'd seen him operate with women before on many occasions. He made them laugh so much, he was down their throat and between their legs before they knew it. 'I've been with blondie before, but I wouldn't mind a go a' 'er mate, if you fancy her.'

'Timmy, you're a pig, you know that?'

'Pig I might be, bur I'm never short of dee old female company, unlike some I could name. Have you sorted yerself out about that tart from Hong Kong yet or are you still beatin' yer breast and howlin' at the moon?'

'Mind your own fuckin' business, my mad friend.'

'Hey lad, I might be mad, bur I'm not soft. At least not where the judies are concerned. Trouble with you is you're still looking for Miss Right when what you should be looking for is Miss less wrong than the last one that fucked you over. You get to our age, mate, and there isn't much choosin' to be done.'

'Since when was I your age, you dirty wee bastard? Come 'ed, these drinks are going flat.'

We re-joined the two women at the table. Soon Timmy had us all giggling helplessly with one of his stories about the Orange Lodge his granddad had belonged to. I'd heard it before, about the Grand Master who thought that Martin Luther was a 'wee blaarck barstarrd who got shot in America'.

He and Alison went for a dance. Sarah remained with me at the table. She was talkative enough for both of us but when she tired of telling me about her studies and the boyfriend she'd just broken up with, she started to interrogate me. She wanted to know where I was from, where I lived now, what I liked to do in my free time. Most of my replies were short and to the point. Finally she got to the big one.

'So, Ulick, what do you do?' Her eyes were penetratingly, almost electrically, blue and I felt that I was being interviewed rather than making small talk.

'You could say I'm semi-retired.'

'So what do you only do half as much as you used to then?' She smiled and sipped from her glass.

'Like everyone in this town who isn't a student, a social worker, or a bizzie. You know. A bit of this a bit of that.'

'Are you normally this evasive or is what you do a secret you're ashamed to tell me?'

'Well if you must know, I used to be an inquiry agent, but at the moment I'm what you might call reviewing my career options.'

'What, you used to be a dick and now you're on the dole? Sounds like a country song.' She smiled again and I noticed her lips formed an almost perfect rosebud.

'I prefer to think of it as resting, if you must know.'

'So when you were a private detective, what did you detect? Was it interesting?

'Oh the usual stuff. Greed, lust, the normal human failings. And no, most of the time it wasn't that interesting, just tedious. People aren't as imaginative in their immorality as we like to think.'

'What a shame.' She smiled and shook her head. 'I was hoping you'ld let me in on the seamy side of Liverpool life.'

'You don't need a detective to show you that, wee girl. Just look around this room and you'll see most of it here. Thieves, dealers, con-men, alkies, reformed alkies, adulterers, would-be adulterers, couldn't be adulterers if they tried, stop-outs, lock-outs, and spongers. That's just in this bar. If you head downstairs you'll really rub shoulders with the creme de la scum.'

'See your man over there at the bar.' I nodded towards tall man in a tan leather jacket. 'He has five women working Hope Street for him as we speak. See the guy he's talking to. They call him Joe Boots, 'cause he carries an extensive range of pharmaceuticals.'

'I didn't realise I was in such illustrious company. Are you always so bitter?'

'I'm not bitter. It's just the reason I know this stuff got himself killed the other night.'

Her interest moved up a gear at this remark, but at the same time I could see something resembling compassion in her face.

'Killed? Oh I'm really sorry. Was it someone close?'

'Not really. I just worked with him a few years, that's all. Would you like another drink?' She nodded her assent and I walked back to the bar. I returned with the drinks and she resumed her interrogation.

'How was your friend killed?' she hesitated and then said quickly 'Of course if you don't want to talk about it I'll understand.' I felt the drink kick in and the small angry worm turned for the third time that night.

'I'm so glad to be in the company of someone who understands' I sneered ' but if you must know, he was run over by person or persons unknown. But that wasn't what fuckin' killed him, darling girl. What fuckin' killed him was a metal fucking Christmas tree that some twenty grand a year wanker from the fucking council thought would put us all in the spirit of the fuckin' season. That's what killed the poor bastard. Now are you satisfied? You have the fucking gory details to tell your mates in the junior common room tomorrow.'

My outburst had clearly shocked her and she looked desperately around for a sign of Alison or Timmy. They were nowhere to be seen. 'I'm really sorry. I wasn't looking for gossip. You just looked as though you might want to talk about it that's all. I really didn't mean to upset you.'

Her face took on a genuine look of concern and her hand reached across the table to rest on mine. I started at the touch. She was the first woman to touch me in tenderness in the six months since Linda had left. Her hand was warm and dry and her finger tips were soft and smooth. My anger subsided into dormancy.

'Ah sure it's alright, wee girl. I shouldn't have gone at you like that. It's the old paddy temper. You know what we're like when drink’s taken. Talking of which, will you take another?'

'Let me get it. It's our turn.'

I didn't argue and turned to watch her walk across to the bar. She was wearing black 501s, DM's and a white T-shirt, it was kind of student uniform. Mentally I compared her body to Linda's. She had broader hips but I didn't get the impression she was held in place by the stiff material of her jeans. I tried to imagine myself in bed with her. But since Linda, I couldn't imagine myself sharing a duvet with anyone other than the cat.

From behind, her T-shirt did not hide the straps of her bra and all I could think of was red lines on white flesh. She returned with the drinks I could see her nipples dark through the whiteness of her top and I wondered what her breasts would be like to hold. Even in my drunkenness I doubted that that would be my fate. But you never knew your luck with the women. She sat down. I raised my glass to her and she touched hers to mine across the table, her eyes focused on mine. I told her about Tom and the accident. She listened silently while I spoke, nodding thoughtfully from time to time. Eventually, she spoke.

'I'm terribly drunk now.'

'Ah well so, you're in the best company for that. Anyway, there's no such thing as terrible drunk. Either you are or you aren't and either way I promise not to take advantage of you'

'Really?' She stretched the word out. 'I only came here to have advantage taken of me.'

'Well sure, I'm a good catholic boy and all I see when I look at a woman is guilt.'

'All I see when I look at a man is germs. Isn't that a sign of the times?' She smiled broadly and I couldn't but help return her smile. Her eyes never left mine. Her hand snaked across the table and enclosed my own.

'How are you off for germs, then?' Her grip tightened on my hand.

'It depends what you mean. Are you talking about the sharing or avoiding of them?'

'Depends what's on offer. The way things are at the moment, I'll take my chances'

'Well as far as I know, I'm relatively germ-free, but I haven't had any tests.'

'You can always use a condom. That would do for me.'

Before I could reply, Timmy and Alison returned to the table. Sarah released my hand and the two women exchanged meaningful glances in that code which women use and men can never understand.

'Timmy says he's knows a place round the corner that's open after this one closes. Do you fancy it Sarah?' I interrupted before Sarah could reply.

'Ah Jesus, Timmy not the Max. You can't be taking these young ones down to that kip of a place.'

'What the fuck's wrong with the Max, la? It's bleeding open innit?

'That's about all you can say for it. Look at the fuckers who drink there.'

'Since when did you get fussy, U? I can remember more than the odd few nights down there wit' you.'

I could see Sarah's interest was aroused. Her quest for the louche had overcome her desire for sex.

Tonight, the last place I wanted to end up in was the Max' or the Maximum Break to give it its full title. It was one of Tom's haunts, but despite that I'd never liked the place. Scouse and Beryl, the old couple who ran, it were friends of his from days on the beat. But it was what it was. A run down snooker hall, come shebeen, come coppers' knocking shop.

They sold spirits and warm bottled beer from a cupboard under the bar and had done as long as anyone could remember. The local bizzies turned a blind eye because there was never any trouble, mainly because they were largest section of clientele. It was also a place for touts, hustlers and the odd student who thought working his way around college was a better option than working his way through it.

I'd seen too many an innocent part company with a week's wages in a 'friendly' game over its green baize tables and overheard too many fit-ups being arranged around the bar to ever find myself feeling comfortable there. I never knew why Timmy liked it except for the fact that it was always open for a drink if they knew your face. During his manic phases that was a major plus for anywhere in his eyes. It was only the possibility of post-Max coition that stopped me just walking away.

'Well I wouldn't mind checking this place out, specially if it's as bad as U makes it sound.' She looked across the table at me as she spoke.

'Alright then, come 'ed' said Timmy 'Let's drink up here and get across dere before deh queues start.' His irony was lost on them but not on me.

As we headed out the door. Ali's eyes met mine. As he said goodnight he smiled gently. They say the Chinese are inscrutable, but I couldn't tell anything from his expression. Over the years he had seen me leave the Aqaba in varying states of drunkenness and except for my time with Linda, rarely with the same woman on consecutive nights. I wondered what was going on behind that face; approval, pity, amusement or just the good manners of complete indifference. As long as I put money in his pocket what did he care, I thought. And why should I care anyway? I did though, without knowing why just then.

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