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Short Stories

North London

 

Walking from the cellar into the bar could feel like stepping out of a plane. First there was silence and contemplation but then there was a buffeting; a rocking, almost. Cellar work was hermetic. Physical, too, but even that had a weird – a satisfying – kind of precision.

Each empty barrel was a reliable pleasure. No matter how many times you did it, there remained the assumption that barrels, even empty ones, were going to be heavy. Lifting one – lifting it with ease and even with élan – felt like a dream experience, like lifting a train or car. The full barrels were trickier. They tapered at both ends and you had to use the middle as a fulcrum, rocking it (but not too much) until you had it resting on a rack. There was always a moment that teetered, suspensefully, before you tapped the seal with a metal spike and rapidly pressed in a wooden bung. This was supposed to help it breathe. The beer came fuming upwards, like champagne. There were hops in it, horrible-looking things, like flies, and it was this that always led, intuitively, to a brisk, obsessive clean-up. The mop had a hose attached and scrubbing with it was a relief; a purge. In so far as a cellar could, it ended up looking spotless. Nick kept checking it. Not checking it, exactly. Identifying with it.

He changed. Literally: he showered and put on clean clothes. But there was more to it than that. The vivid glaze of the bar; the drone of all the early evening drinkers; the Christmas songs – Nick felt this on his skin and in his stomach. He opened his arms and welcomed it in. But he was also, subtly, on guard. He rubbed his hands together in what was also a mime of somebody rubbing his hands together. He said,

“Lovely.”

This was more to himself than anyone else. It was as though he had to act out his own enthusiasm before it existed for him. Unwilling to let it go, he jiggled up and down, even as he was pouring himself a half of lager. Bob said,

“I’ll have whatever it is you’re having.”

Bob, it seemed, liked to act out the part of a regular in much the same way that Nick was being a barman. Bob was… what? Fifty? Sixty? He had a Ho Chi Minh beard and a face that was as glazed, in its own way, as the bar was. He was an academic, a professor of something or other, but clichés seemed to comfort him. His terrified eyes peered out at you, as though his face was a kind of burrow. Nick said,

“It’s joie de vivre.”

Bob nodded.

“Quite right. Not beer at all.”

Nick drank half and then filled it up again. He liked Bob but he functioned like the first act on a bill; you had to force yourself to pay attention to him. Nick asked him about Christmas Day. It was the kind of thing he almost never did. Bob placed both hands beside his belly. The belly itself was pseudo-Christmassy. He said,

“I will, of course, get drunk. There will be poetry. I will recite The Green Eye Of The Little Yellow God to a reluctant audience then fall asleep. At some point, my son-in-law will get me in a fireman’s lift and take me up to bed.”

He puffed, with evident satisfaction, on the soggy nub of a cigar. 

“And your good self?”

“My good self?”

But it didn’t do to draw attention to Bob’s turn of phrase. Nick looked over his head, out at the green. The circles, like the bottoms of bottles, in the windows warped the view, making it look smaller and more distant. The V-shape of the roads around the green, itself a tiny postage stamp; the spacious road beyond; the broad sky and the Georgian houses – all served, in miniature, to highlight where you were: inside. “The Highwayman” was an old coaching inn, with wooden beams. There was a fireplace, a two-way chimney breast, that formed part of the archway from the short bar, where Bob was, into the long. Beyond that was the restaurant. Nick barely ventured into it. The bar was as much his home as anywhere else had ever been. He shrugged.      

“Pub food”, he said.

He took another sip.

“Hot, hopefully.”

“And then?”

“Oh: sleep. I don’t care where. Right here will do.”

He patted the bar. A patch of stickiness had blurred the surface so he took a cloth and rubbed it clean. The pub was filling up. Here were the bar staff: Bob, Melinda, Angel, Sam, Claude, Caroline and Serge. They all wore crisp shirts and clip-on bow ties. Angel, who had three razor marks, like sergeant’s stripes, cut into his Larry Blackmon flattop, wore his collar up. He had a swaggery roll, a sailor’s walk, and flicked his fingers, three or four of them, like castanets. Caroline’s bob was bright white, like a wig. Apart from that, there was a pleasing uniformity about them all; the way they moved around each other felt, sometimes, almost precise. Nick liked to think he marshalled them. Not obviously. He joked; sometimes he sang. He yelled non-sequiturs. Sometimes, they yelled them back. It was a performance; a distance that felt a lot like intimacy.

Here, meanwhile, in the corner, squeezed between the fireplace and the door, were what was called “The Corner”, painters and decorators who came here, most of them, every night. They had a chant – “0i-oi!” – and a confident, an almost aristocratic, way of summoning you; a nod or a wink that signified that they knew just how important they all were. When one of them said “When you’re ready” it was essentially meaningless; almost a catchphrase. Whenever Nick approached them one of them would shout out, “Here he is.” It sounded affectionate; familial.

They had brought their wives tonight, as well as Rebecca and her friends. Ann, one of Rebecca’s friends, was tapping her fingers on the bar. Bob looked at Nick looking at her. He said, recited rather,

“She upbraided poor Carew in the way that women do,
Though both her eyes were strangely hot and wet.”

But Bob was fading; his time was almost up. Nick’s language, his delivery, had undergone a transformation. His deliveries. Down in the longer bar, he preened and tap-danced; clattering steps that served no useful purpose, not even to entertain. He had a gesture, a tic, in which he checked his hair repeatedly in the mirror, tucking and then untucking his fringe. Elsewhere, he played up to The Corner. Here, now, with Ann, he mimed – he lightly, and as it were accidentally, touched one of her fingers; he shook his head briefly, no, when she tried to pay him – as though it were really eloquence. Caroline disapproved. She bristled, seeming to thicken, slightly, in the neck and shoulders. But Caroline was three-dimensional. Ann was a tweedy skirt and umber nails. A face, that’s all, and slender legs. Barely a face: it was more her expression, the way that she continued to look at him, that had Nick hovering over her. It was profoundly sexy, this, although Nick wouldn’t, or couldn’t, have put it into words. He was aware, instead, of having been lifted, like a balloon; of feeling, somehow, lighter and heavier all at once. The songs, the same old Christmas songs, had an erotic charge; a blundering but insistent rhythm. Ann stayed put. She watched him. Caroline said,

“She’s like your mum.”

“How would you know?”

“I mean it: look.”

Ann lit a cigarette. Caroline shook her head.

“Oh, Christ. The smoke: she’s sucking it up her nose. She’s sucking it up her nose.”

“I know.”

Caroline looked at him. Pertly aggressive, she flicked his forehead, hard, with an index finger, saying,

“You could do better.”

Swiftly, she stepped around him. The bar was four deep now. Nick turned the volume up. His dips and sways, the way he sashayed or else span around a corner, felt choreographed. Ann was a persistent presence, like an itch. Once, passing glasses back to Serge, smoking a cigarette, he leant a leg against her leg. He said,

“Don’t move.”

She leaned against him; placed a hand, ostensibly to help him, on his hand. He said,

“You’re good at this.”

He was lowing into her ear. You had to trust that, in the middle of all this noise, you could communicate. The tone itself, its murmurous throb, would serve. But then The Corner heaved from side to side; he ended up, beached, at the corner of the hatch. Now, though, he couldn’t concentrate. He totted up what Ann had drunk: three double vodkas. He had had four pints. He knew exactly how he was going to act; the gap had narrowed between thought and deed. (What would his “good” self have done? Pointless to wonder now.) He gave her a drink; she hadn’t asked. He lit her cigarette. She continued to look at him; to stare levelly at his face and, afterwards, at his profile. Her nails danced idly around her glass. They fascinated Nick; they glittered, like trinkets, in the flushed pink of the lamps. Caroline said,

“Don’t, Nick.”

She turned a pump off with what looked like a karate chop.

“Just don’t.”

Angel had noticed, too. He said,

“My man.”

His words and wary, lilting tone didn’t match up. But Nick had made up his mind. At twelve o’clock they closed the bar. They counted down until there was, it seemed, an entire fiesta: whoops and the sharp crack, like rifle fire, of party poppers. Nick edged into the space between the fireplace and the corner, staring at Ann until she turned her face to look at him. Still staring, he edged around The Corner, through the door. The streets were sleek; they fizzed with rain. The wind threw gusts of it, like pellets, into your face. Ann’s face, not yet aware of him, looked studious and resigned. He took her hand and led her round the back, into the car park, where he placed her, like a three-dimensional model, under a tree. What happened then felt oddly second-hand. His wheedling tone; his tenderness; the lilting of his hands – he’d learned it all by rote. She didn’t talk; just nodded, in time.

Afterwards, he barely gave her time to dress. There was a moment when she stumbled over her knickers - she nearly fell - but he wouldn’t, or couldn’t, wait for her. Inside, he picked five glasses up, one-handed, but Caroline wasn’t fooled; she wouldn’t talk to him. He couldn’t look at Ann. Where, before, he had been buoyant, now he felt as though he had been flooded with dirty water. He saw the customers with a terrible clarity: their slack, distorted mouths; their bodies, radically out of true. Eventually, she left. She had the look of someone who had found a spider in her bed. They all left, back to their homes and families. Once they were gone, the bar staff huddled at the short end of the bar. He stood and poured himself a drink. Caroline was saying – almost singing – something. The Christmas songs were faint, now; a collective memory. When he looked into the mirror it was like looking at someone else. He smiled, slowly. He tucked, and then untucked, his fringe. He saluted himself.

“Happy Christmas,” he said.

*****

                                                                                                    The Photographer

                                                                                                                                                                          

If you study the exhibition catalogue then you might sense something like immanence. The photographs, most of them, are angled just as though the buildings are beginning their ascent. They're all in black and white; they have a sombreness, a solemnity, which makes you feel that this is the sort of place where great art should have been created.

 

But it didn't feel that way at the time. In Frankie's shop, light dribbled down the window pane. The yard itself was sepia. You came around the corner and, if you hadn't been there before, the shop, its awning and striped blind, seemed vivid and desperate, like a flare. Queeny, his wife, kept pansies in a window box. She "manned" the shop; this was a local joke, a homage to the way she glowered at you from behind the till. Frankie and Queeny were the embodiment, it seemed, of what was more a piece of local folklore than a joke: the woman, big as a blown-up ball, who kept her husband in the same way that you'd keep a ferret or a dog. Frankie was only five foot four. He made nervous gestures, little stabs and feints, like he was directing the air around him.

 

"Try to relax," he said.

 

Harry was standing to attention. Now that he was in the camera's eye he looked as if he was frozen into the kind of gesture that a statue makes, a sternly benevolent blessing or angry warning. Frankie, impatient, tugged at him. He pulled his cap so that the right side touched his ear. He threw a ticket machine into his hands. Harry said,

 

"Coo. Where did you get that from?"

 

Frankie ignored him; stared at him, spat on a handkerchief then worried at his badge.

 

"Leave off."

 

Harry shrugged his shoulders.

 

"It's only for the missus."

 

But, of course, this wasn't true. Nobody, Frankie knew, was entirely impervious to the power of the lens. Later, in the darkroom, there he was: Harry. Wooden; on his dignity; half drunk (Frankie left these in a drawer) and then – these two – the Harry that Harry would have wished the world to see. Frankie's presence, the camera that had seemed to want to nuzzle him, had made him gather the ticket machine into his chest. He had a look of mildly affronted rectitude; he looked the type for whom it was important that he get you safely home. When he came in he held the photo, sheepishly, between his thumb and forefinger. He lifted it to the light and tilted it from right to left and back again. At last, he said,

 

"'as it."

 

He nodded.

 

"'as me."

 

He made a grab for Frankie’s hand. His huge paw next to Frankie’s delicate, tapered fingers was an illustration of their relative sensibilities. Frankie had the bearing – the cockiness and breeding – of a court photographer. He said that you had to be a mind reader but, really, it wasn't hard. Mothers wanted to look maternal; builders swaggered through the door; bookies and publicans all worked at being convivial. Mods (it was the time of mods) wanted a blend of masculinity and something else: a surliness but also a languid and free-floating grace. Frankie gave people what they wanted. He coaxed it out of them; he seemed, sometimes, to be caressing them. He made a good living at it, too.

 

Until Diane came in. It was a spring day but the yard was grey and wet. Her raincoat was bright pink and she had modish batwing eyelashes; two lines of exclamation marks. She pointed to the blinds that led into the back, saying,

 

"He in?"

 

Her hands, after all that, were a bit of a shock. The hair; the raincoat; her bare knees – all told you that she was a typical London girl; a clerk, say, or a secretary. But her fingers were stubby and grimy; greasy, even. Queeny looked her up and down. Diane began to speak but, at that moment, Frankie wandered in. He was studying an advert, a woman who, in her fur coat and chalky lipstick, might just as well have been one of the bottles of perfume ("Joy!") that were advertised out in the yard and in the streets beyond. She looked expensive, which was the last thing that Diane was. She said,

 

"You free?"

 

Frankie looked at her for a moment. He seemed to see something; some splash of light. He nodded, almost to himself, and grinned. To Queeny he said,

 

"Alright?"

 

"You only 'ave 'alf an hour."

 

"Okey-doke."

He went dancing round her, plucking a packet of fags from behind the till in the same way that a magician might produce a bunch of flowers. This jauntiness, too, was part of local (indeed, of national) myth. One recognised and felt a certain comfort in the presence of someone cheeky enough to guy the battle-axe that he had married, seemingly inadvertently. It was Diane's turn to grin. In the studio, she sat on the stool provided for her.

 

"It's for my mum."

 

Her hands hung awkwardly between her knees. She was… what? Frankie studied her. Nineteen? Twenty? She rubbed her nose. Below her miniskirt, her knees were red. She was smiling. She nodded at Frankie's camera.

 

"She says you're good. She says that you’ll make me look beeyoo-ti-fall."

 

She did a daffy pout and flounced her shoulders so that her hair fell down behind them. Frankie smiled. He lit a cigarette. She seemed to dance, just for a moment, in a heady gauze. He bent expectantly then fired off a round of shots. He tried, he really did. He came so close that he could feel her breaths, short rapid puffs, against his skin. He made her sit, demurely, with her hands clasped in her lap. He introduced a hair-band, then took it off. He went for thoughtful; innocent; womanly – but nothing worked. She was impervious. Not indifferent or defensive – just impervious. Something resisted him but it felt just like its opposite; as though there was nothing there. His hands felt oddly awkward, like flippers or spades. He pushed his hair out of his eyes and it felt like somebody else was doing it. He had another go. At last, he said,

 

"I, um."

 

She looked at him expectantly.

 

"I need more time."

 

She didn't say – she didn't seem to be thinking – anything. Her face was perfectly in proportion but this perfection didn’t seem to have anything to do with her. It was no more expressive than a fruit. Again, he nodded, like an idiot.

 

"More time. I need…"

 

He moved his hands together and then apart, like he was trying to negotiate two shapes into alignment. She smiled, but it was astonishing, really, how you could smile and yet communicate so little. He felt a frustration that was unfamiliar. Diane was like some stubborn material that had refused to shape itself under the sculptor's hands. He wanted, just for a moment, to throw something at her. He said,

 

"Tomorrow?"

 

She shrugged.

 

"If you say so."

 

But nothing happened. Not on the next day or the next. She smiled, she flapped her lashes, but she could have been anyone. She had a blandness that felt generic, somehow. All over the country, there were girls like this, smiling and giggling in ways that were, essentially, identical. He said,

 

"What do you want to be, Diane?"

 

He sounded both as irritated and as nonplussed as he was feeling but, at first, she didn’t seem to understand. Her mouth moped downwards, pointlessly sensual. At last, she smiled, and shrugged.

 

"Dunno."

 

She giggled.

 

"Sandie Shaw!"

 

She kicked her feet and waved her hands but later, in the darkroom, it looked abstract; a mime. She was mimicking somebody else’s joie de vivre. Her face was an eerie blank. Frank stared at her. That night, Queeny turned to face him. Wherever in the bed she was, she seemed to wallow in it. But she also loomed above him. She said,

 

"You're old enough to be her dad."”

 

Outside, the noises of the street sounded more intimate than anything in here. The clock gave a thump, like the thump of an axe, whenever a minute passed. Queeny breathed, laboriously, through her mouth. When Frankie stroked the bedspread he realised, all over again, just how thin it was; how it seemed to express his dissatisfaction.

 

But Queeny was wrong. He had no sexual interest in the girl. If he could have put it into words he would have told you that she represented something. It was intangible; something unrecognisable that he had lost, or, rather, had never had. Frankie’s life felt cumbersome, both circumscribed and dutiful. He'd been a soldier and then a husband and now a photographer. Each role was prepared for you: you knew exactly how to act. But Diane didn’t seem to be anything. She was seventeen, she said; she worked in a factory. But beyond that – beneath it – there was a blank. At first, he'd thought: she’s lost. But she wasn't. She was free.

 

In the third week, she came in wearing a jacket that was daubed with the Union Jack. He asked her what it meant. Again, she shrugged.

 

"Nothing," she said.

 

He thought that that was perfect. If he had had the nerve, he would have asked her to take off everything else; to roll around in it. Instead, he asked her to pull a face. He had her smoking, then chewing gum. Her sense of freedom was elusive, like a rare bird. You had to stalk it. He began to see that the more wooden her gestures were, the more she seemed to toss them off or wilfully exaggerate them, the freer she seemed to be. He encouraged her to strike poses but to undermine them, too: to cross her eyes or fake a limp. He joked; he prodded her with the camera. He limped around the room, his hands lolling below his knees.

 

"You’re mad," she said.

 

Still, she kept coming back. She was flattered, he thought. She thought that he found her beautiful.

 

But something strange was happening elsewhere. It was Harry's wife who first drew attention to it. Marching into the shop, she waved a photograph in Queeny’s face. She said,

 

"What's this? Go on: who's that supposed to be?"

 

Queeny peered down into the photograph. She looked incongruously scholarly, but cautious too, as though whatever it was might bite her. Nora, the Nora in the picture, looked angry and defensive. She gripped her grandchild like she wouldn't let you have him back. You saw that the love she felt was really just a net or a set of chains. It seemed appropriate that the child should be squirming to be released. Queeny said,

 

"You, Nora. 'as you."

 

But Nora backed away.

 

"It's not," she said. "I'm telling you. He's made me look…"

 

She couldn't seem to find the word. Her face contorted, so that, in the end, she seemed to spit it out.

 

"Dreadful," she said.

 

Yes, Queeny saw this at once. Nora was full of dread. She held her grandson like a treasure that would, inevitably, be snatched away. Where she had wanted softness – a shimmering gauze of sentiment – Frankie had found a terrible kind of truth.

 

And he kept doing it. He made builders look like slabs of meat; their unresponsive eyes were like the eyes you’d paste onto a teddy bear. Bookies were twitchy. Mods were sly. More: swishy and droll. People began to go elsewhere. One day, Queeny edged into the studio. Diane sat, mermaid-like, in nothing but pink shorts, smoking a cigarette. Around her, there was a ripped-up pile of schoolbooks. Queeny ignored her. She said,

 

"What's this?"

 

He didn’t seem to know. He smiled and shrugged. He looked like he was drunk, she thought. She was aware of herself in a way that she hadn’t been for years. She felt enormous but she had a countervailing urge to flaunt herself; to use her body like a fist. She said,

 

"Who's she supposed to be? Nell Gwynn?"

 

Diane was looking vacantly around the studio.

 

"You're ruining us."

 

She raised an accusing arm. She was Commerce; Morality.

 

"These pictures. What you're doing. It's dirty, Frank."

 

Even as she was saying it, she knew that she wasn’t saying what she meant.

 

"It's filth."

 

She meant that Frankie was digging up what would be better hidden. No-one, she knew, would want what Frankie wanted on their mantelpiece. And she was right. The shop closed two years later.

 

Which makes her pause, now, at the picture in the middle of the gallery. It is the shop but, somehow, a platonic version. Shorn of all the sounds and smells that she remembers, it looks iconic: terribly significant. The card beside it talks about Frankie's "purple patch" but all Queeny can remember are the unpaid bills; the customers who crossed the street whenever they saw her coming. Here they all are: Harry, an overweening drunk, and tarty Marge and Morris the homosexual; poor swishy Mo. Here, too, is Diane – four or five of her, gurning and doing the splits and showing you that, really, she hadn't a thought in her head. That was what Frankie had managed to expose, all unbeknownst to him: her silliness. His silliness.

 

She wants to cry but when has she ever cried? Even the room is a sort of dream. Pristine, bright white, soft, somehow, it buoys you up and has you drifting from face to face. The journalists ask: what do you think about when you look at them? How do you feel about the fact that he’s not here to see it?

 

Queeny shrugs.

 

"His loss," she says.

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