By seven o'clock that evening the city was back to normal. Rain blew in gusts along Lime Street but inside the Crown the drinkers were bathed in the warmth of its yellow light. The men in the Public Bar were gathered into silent, despondent groups. Everton had been a goal up until, in the last ten minutes, Bolton had equalized and then, during overtime they had scored again. There would be no celebrating in the city tonight; it was time for serious, dedicated drinking, for memories of matches gone by and of golden days on the Kop.
The lights in the Crown reflected from the polished brass rail, from the dark wood of the bar top and from the heavy mirror that stood above the bar. A yellow warmth enveloped the drinkers, gathering them in. They stood silent, or shuffled their feet on the wooden floor and dragged at cigarettes cupped in the palms of their hands as if to protect them from the cold wind blowing off the river, sipping slyly at their pints. But as pint followed pint the mood would gradually change. Around ten the first fights would break out, half hearted to begin with, until the brawls spilled out on the streets and were carried on to chip shops and Chinese restaurants, up Brownlow Hill and into the Bull Ring. By midnight faces would be butted and teeth knocked out. The men leaning on the bar tonight could feel the stench of violence in the air.
But Vera was impervious to all this as she pushed her way into the Crown. After all, she'd slept through the whole afternoon and football meant nothing to her anyway. Arm in arm with Stutty she laughed and shouted her way across the bar. The men turned to glare at her but Vera didn't give a bollocks as she led Stutty through to the snug.
"Come on then Stutty, get us a drink will you", she shouted.
For Vera there was nothing special about that evening. It was the same as any other night, a time to get tanked up and go out for a feed. But Marge, still half snared by her dreams, felt a tension in the air. She dragged herself to the bench by the mantelpiece in the snug and slumped down, looking into the fire.
"Ah for God's sake, Marge, you're a long drink of water. Sit there and behave yourself, and don't go buggering off like you did last night."
Vera lit herself a cigarette and took in a deep lungful of smoke. "God, I can't take you anywhere these days without you making a long face. I'm getting sick of the sight of you."
She plumped herself up in front of the mirror, adjusting her hair, then sat down beside Marge and gave her and hearty shove. "Well then, kid? Put a smile on it can't you. I'm going to throw up with looking at you."
Marge attempted a faint smile.
"That's better. Keep smiling, Marge, that's what Winnie Churchill told us in the war. Not that the fat bugger had anything to cry about, living it up in his big air raid shelter under Buckingham Palace and them big fat cigars as well. Remember what he said about the war being like shagging - 'it will be long, it will be hard and there will be no withdrawal'?"
Marge shook herself."It's just that I had a bad night." She paused, "d'you reckon Cullen'll be in soon?"
Vera gave her friend another shove. "If he catches sight of that face he'll bugger off home again double quick. Now wake up will yer and take notice."
A moment later Stutty minced in, balancing pints in hands and Vera was up and grabbing at him. Marge stared back into the fire and held onto herself to prevent the shiverings. She tried hard to make pictures appear in the hot coals but was suddenly shocked back into awareness by Vera's shout.
"God, you're a weirdo coming in rooms like that. D'you see him, Stutty? I'll swear that door never opened and now there he is standing there."
Marge spun round to see Cullen, the rain streaming from his sleek black hair. There seemed to be a halo of darkness around him, almost as if he was drawing in the warm light from the room towards him and extinguishing it. Vera started to speak but Cullen silenced her with a gesture of his hand.
"Bugger off, you. Go and buy yourself some chips or something".
Vera rose in what she took to be a dignified manner, "Yeah, well I've finished me drink so we was going anyways. Come on, Stutty, let's have another in the bar. It's like a sodding funeral in here anyway."
Stutty, edging out of the door, nodded to Cullen in an embarrassed, deferential sort of way. "Nasty night, Mr Cullen."
As Vera left Marge hurried to make a space on the bench beside her, but Cullen chose to walk over to the mantelpiece. With a metallic thud he set down a small parcel wrapped in newspaper and the shelf and, placing his hands either side of the frame, stared into the mirror. Water dripped from his coat onto the hearth.
"All right are you, Cullen?" Marge finally. And then, after a longer pause, "Penny for them".
After a time Marge could see the steam beginning to rise from his wet trousers. But Cullen sensed none of this, his concentration was focussed on his own reflection, or as if he could see beyond the image, into something far deeper.
When Cullen did eventually turn he face was white with anger. "This city's dead. I'm sick of all of you, sick to the back teeth. I tell you, there's going to be something better; there's going to be something really big. Just once, and then I'm off, next stop the U.S. of A."
Cullen crouched down and, staring into the fire, thrust the poker deep into the hot coals. "When I was a kid I had this box of lead soldiers I lifted from Hornbys. I'd stand them on the hob in front of the fire, just like that." He tapped the poker on the iron bar in front of the fire. "I'd leave them there and watch. All painted they were, British regiments. If you put your head down on the floor and looked up at them it was like they was real. Standing there, against the heat, not moving, not crying out. Then, all of a sudden, the heat would get to them. It was so fast, one moment they'd be standing there, the next the lead'd be flowing out of them. They seemed to melt from the inside first. Very fast. Then there was nothing. Just bright lead flowing over the bars."
Marge's mouth felt so try that she was unable to form any words of reply.
"There could be a fire like that, a fire that would melt things from the inside. It would be clean after that, everything would be new."
Marge crouched down beside him. "It'll be all right, Cullen."
Cullen pulled out the poker and held it, dully glowing, up to his face. "There's got to be something different."
For a moment Marge had a feeling of such closeness, as if she had no need to reach out and touch him on the shoulder because she could almost see into his mind. But just then the door burst open and Terrance strode in.
"Hello wacker, what a night, Everton lost and it's pissing down outside. Come on you two and let me see that fire. I'm frigging near drownded."
Cullen looked at Marge and nodded at the door, "Business. Better get and tell that fat bitch to keep away and all."
"Yes," Marge said smiling to him, "I was going for a pee anyway, Cullen."
Outside a heavy drizzle was sweeping over Liverpool. It wrapped itself around Marge as she opened the pub door to the yard. Marge took a deep breath and tasted the sea on her tongue. The bulb had been smashed but she could still make out the cobbled stones below, thanks to the light in a bedroom opposite. One corner of the yard was heaped with beer crates and in the other there was a pile of broken glass from which came the plaintive sounds of retching. As her eyes grew accustomed to the darkness Marge made out the shape of a man holding himself up against the far wall.
The sight of the drunk seemed to encourage her and she picked her way across the wet, slippery cobbles to where the lavatory door was hanging loose on its broken hinges. She poked her head inside but quickly recoiled from the stench and so, hitching up her skirt and pulling down her knickers, she squatted on her heels to piss in the yard.
As the puddle of urine steamed in the cold night air Marge could hear the drunk chanting, "Jesus, Mary and Joseph forgive me. Jesus, Mary and Joseph pray for me," as he knelt at the foot of the wall.
Marge did not go back into the pub right away but, folding her arms across her body, she looked up into the night sky. There was a faint glow above as the lights from the city diffused and reflected themselves in the dark clouds above. She remembered those winters when she had been a child, and how thick the fog had been, and how on some days it had been so bad that the Nuns had closed the school.
And then she began to think about Cullen and how angry he had seemed to night. But despite it all she knew she was close to him, even if he did not realize. But it was true, he was like that sometimes; it was as if there was a wild animal inside him, something inside his skin that was trying to burst out. She remember how he'd once told them about the time he'd been a boy. He'd been fishing with a friend in the canal near Litherland. They'd walked miles and on the way home it got darker and darker and then began to rain. His mate said that he knew about a short cut and so the two boys had begun to walk across a field.
Suddenly it was totally back. You couldn't even see your hand in front of your face, Cullen'd said. And it was very quiet, there was no more traffic, no birds, nothing. And then in the distance he'd heard this buzzing noise, high up in the air. And as he walked towards it to could see a sort of coloured glow in the sky. It was electricity, a big pylon with million of volts going through. And he went right up to it and lay there on the grass, with his arms stretched out, in the rain, looking up at the wires. He told her that he could feel the electricity going through him, pumping right through his chest. It was like he was full of electricity and it was going to burst out of him, a tremendous power that would burst out of him and cover everything with its radiance.
Mr Roberts carefully placed the vase in the centre of his desk and angled the side light onto it. That was one of the advantages of working in a converted chapel, you never knew what you'd find next. He had discovered the vase along with some prayer books and a box of dusters in the back of the long cupboard under the window. As he'd crouched on his knees, searching into its dark corners, he'd been quite overcome with the smell. It was a curious evocative smell, the churchy-sweet odour of polish mixed in with a diffuse mustiness and a something rubbery that he could not quite define.
As Mr Roberts looked into the iridescent surface of the vase he realized that the smell inside the cupboard had reminded him of the time he was a boy back in Wales. There was a tall oak hallstand beside the front door and, each time he came back from chapel, his father would make him put his woolen gloves on a ledge in the box at the bottom. Sometimes, after his father had gone into the back kitchen, he would crouch there, for minutes at a time, sniffing at the smell inside the box. Yes, his memory was correct, it was almost the same smell he had noticed earlier. How strange it was, he thought, memory. He'd probably not thought about that hallstand for twenty years now, not since he'd been married. But now the memories came flooding back; his short trousers, the hymn book and bible he carried for his father, the anticipation of Sunday dinner after chapel.
Mr Roberts smiled as he took his watch from his pocket and stared at it for a moment. Yes, he really should be going down soon, the interval would start in ten minutes or so and he had to check the girl's tray. But it was so nice and cosy in this little room, the gas fire bubbling in the corner and the warm light reflected in the polished wood panels. It was strange when you came to think of it, how little things could bring you so much pleasure. Simply being warm and cosy was happiness in itself.
But then there were some people who always wanted to spend their time gallivanting around in cars or sitting in drafty pubs. All that running about; it was simply wasting time. After all, you could get your pleasure in such simple ways. You didn't even need a book or a newspaper, you could simply sit there in absolute peace and quite, that was quite sufficient.
Mr Roberts put his watch back into his pocket and tapped his fingers on the table, carefully calculating the time. He got up and walked across to the kettle. Yes, he would just be able to have a nice cup of tea and two Marie biscuits before he went down. That was another thing, tea, sitting in a tea room, or a station buffet. Those little cafes: he loved to take his cup of tea over to the table in the corner where the light was dim and no one could watch him. It didn't really matter if the cafe was posh or not... just being alone in the gloom could bring about a certain contentment. In the right sort of cafe, sitting at the corner table, he could take half an hour or more over his tea. Just sitting, watching the people come and go, and no one to bother you.
From the floor Mr Roberts could feel the vibrations of the cinema beneath. That would be the audience applauding. Funny how they did that when none of the actors would be able to hear them. That meant that the first film was coming to an end. He bent down to check the light under the kettle, then, giving a quick glance towards the door, he went over to the cupboard and opened it. Just one quick breath would be enough.
Yes, the memory was still there.
By the time Marge returned to the snug Cullen and Terrance were huddled together at the table in the corner.
"Ah, but it's the sweetest little number I'm telling you, Cullen. There'll be more lead than you've ever seen in your whole life, and it's to be loaded onto the lorry first thing Monday morning. So tonight it'll be just waiting for the pair of us."
Cullen spat contemptuously into the fire.
"Kid's stuff. I was doing church roofs when I was still at school."
"But it'll fetch a good price. Lead's worth its weight in gold. That and copper."
"So what about the watchman?"
"That's the lovely part, Cullen. The old bugger'd shit a brick if he heard anything. Gassed in the First World War he was. Oh, he'll keep to his hut all right. I'll go over the fence and open the doors for you. It'll go clean as knife."
Cullen stood up and winked at Marge. "And how're we supposed to get this lead back home. Have you thought that one out mastermind? Birkenhead's the other side of the river, are you intending to float it across?"
Terrance simply clapped his big hands together in enthusiasm of it. "That's where you're Ma's cart comes in. We load the lead on the cart and put the flowers back on top. All we have to do it wheel it onto the last ferry - there'll be no one nosing round that late at night.'
Terrance grinned and winked at his friend in anticipation but Cullen simply held his gaze in silence until the other man was forced to turn away his eyes."
"God, I'm getting sick of this whole frigging city. It's too small, you've not no proper ideas none of you."
He turned on Terrance, sticking a finger in his face. "I'm going to be laughing the day I dump you. You're small time. Six months in Walton goal last time. You've got a fucking police record and you still keep leaving your prints all over the place. It's not even safe taking you along with me any more."
Terrance shrugged and tried to smile, "It was only an idea. We don't have to do the lead if we don't want to."
"You're right, I bloody well don't. God, I'd get more joy taking that skinny arsed Stutty with me, at least he'd got more brains that you have. Or even Marge here."
Terrance spread his big hands and stared down at them. "We could do a taxi, you know. Use Vera as bait. They'll be loaded on a Saturday night, won't they?
"We lost the match, didn't we? No one'll be spending tonight."
It was then that Marge had her big idea. She wet her lips and waited until Cullen had calmed down a bit.
"I've got this idea," she said. "It was something that Stutty was saying before. And there'll be lots of money in it."
Elsie at the cash desk looked up to see, high above her, Mr Roberts with his legs astride and hands clasped behind his back, swaying from foot to foot. With a shrug she went back to her penny mirror, peering into its cloudy depths at her own reflection. Most of the silver had flaked off from its back and the front surface was greasy and fly-blown. That's why me make up never goes on proper, she thought to herself, still he doesn't seem to mind. So why worry? As she smeared her lips with Scarlet Passion she glanced up against to observe Mr Roberts hopping on one foot. Silly old fart. And the way he treats us all. If I didn't need the money I'd give the bugger a piece of me mind. We all would.
Mr Roberts, from the balcony, had been surveying his Galaxy of Stars and was now standing before a photograph of Fred Astaire. A dapper little man, he mused. Dapper. Little. He remembered those dances long ago that Morag had persuaded him to attend. Father had not really forbidden the whole thing, more a frown of disapproval and disappointment. But in the long run Morag had won the day and, as a consequence, he had discovered something of a natural talent in himself. The tango, foxtrot and quickstep.
Of course he would never dream of going to a dance now, but a faint memory of the old steps came back to him as he descended the great curved staircase. With a surge of amusement he realized that the girl at the cash desk was looking at him. Mr Roberts affected a neat little two-step on the next stair. Jaunty. That's how she must see me, he fancied. A jaunty man; well established but still capable of a nod towards the younger generation. A moment later the toe of his highly polished show caught on the carpet treat and he nearly stumbled. Resuming a slow and more measured pace, Mr Roberts mused to himself that there must be something peculiar in the air tonight.
Elsie stared into the mirror as, with the corner of her lace handkerchief, she wiped the scarlet lipstick off her teeth.
"Everything in order, Miss...er..?"
"They're sweating cobs in there, Mr. Roberts. Packed like sardines, and I've been run silly with people asking for change, and them children trying to sneak in the second half. You'll have to tell Mr Milligan to be more careful at the door. It's not my job to keep people out."
Mr Roberts turned to admire the curvature of the Grand Staircase.
"I'll take over the till now, Miss...erm. We must get everything accounted for and into the safe."
He caught her sneaking a glance at the clock.
"Hmm ..well, I suppose it would be in order for you to leave now. But mind that you get here in good time for inspection on Monday. Nice and prompt. I've had to tick you off for lateness before."
He frowned as the girl attempted a courtesy within the confines of the tiny box. Was she trying to give him cheek? He's have to be more careful with the staff, keep them at a distance. But then had to admit that she appeared quite polite as she handed over the draw of the till.
"Well then, Miss...erm. Well, er, good night to you."
Mr Roberts carefully looked around then made his way upstairs, the heavy draw of the cash till in his arms.
By now they were all drinking pints and whiskey chasers, and Marge, who hadn't even managed to force down her breakfast was beginning to feel dizzy and sick. But still it was great to think how enthusiastic Cullen had been about her plan. He was sitting at the corner table talking very seriously to Stutty.
"It's really nice there, Mr Cullen," Stutty was saying. "You'll find the seats very comfortable and they have a good selection of ice cream and sweets in the interval. And even the toilets are very clean. I was thinking of taking Vera to see the main feature, but maybe we could all go."
Cullen nodded, "And you say they were packed out last time you went?"
"Yes, Saturday's always very popular. But I'm sure if we left soon we could all get a seat. I'll run on ahead if you like and reserve seats for all of us."
Cullen winked over at Terrance, "I suppose there'd be a separate entrance, Stutty, wouldn't there? Somewhere that the kids can sneak in on a Saturday night."
"Oh, n-n-no, Mr Cullen, you see my mother's very particular about being in an enclosed place, in case of fire you see. So she made me check, and there is a Fire Exit at the front, just under the screen but you can't get in from the outside because they have a special lock. And there are some stairs around the back, but they only lead up to the Manager's Office, or at least I think they do."
"Ah, Stutty's yer man, isn't he, Cullen. A regular spy. We could have won the war in two weeks flat if you'd been working for us, Stutty, instead of reading German books."
Stutty raised his glass to his lips in what he took to me a manly way and said, "So, we're all going, are we? A real night out together."
But here Cullen only shook his head, glancing over at Marge to make sure she was with him. "But Stutty, old mate. We all spent the night in this pub, right till closing time and then we went to the chippie together. Am, I right, Marge?"
Marge raised her glass in salute. "We was all here drinking, Cullen, the five of us, we never went out all night. Even Albert the barman remembered."
At this Stutty began to look bewildered, but Vera pulled him onto her lap and told him to shut up and stop being so daft.
Cullen leaned over and tapped him on the shoulder. "None of us are going out tonight, and we're all staying in this room drinking - your philosophy can extend that far can it?"
Stutty nodded a bewildered yes, in reply. "Terrance and me are going to attend to a little business," Cullen continued," d'you understand? It won't take us very long and anyway you won't be getting lonely because all the time we're out we'll still be here talking to you. Won't we?"
This time Vera had to give him a sharp dig in the ribs before Stutty could manage another, "yes".
"And another thing Stutty, old boy, I think I'll borrow that coat of yours, it may come in handy, me being so easily recognized and that."
Marge pulled the scarf from around her neck and handed it to Cullen. "Here, you may need that too."
Cullen was positively jaunty now, Marge had never seen him that excited before. He bowed to everyone in the room, walked over to the mantle shelf and picked up his parcel and strode out of the door with Terrance in toe.
Mr Roberts rubbed his hands together, then put on the kettle. Things were going very nicely tonight, thank you very much. With a bit of luck he'd be home early so they would be able to drink their cocoa in bed together before Morag asked him to put out them light.
He made careful towers of change on the desk, threepenny bits, pennys, halfpennys and odd farthings on the left, with smaller erections of sixpences, shillings and half crowns to the right. He should really be gathering twelve pennys into columns then arranging the columns in rows, but tonight he felt a little frivolous, youthful perhaps. He attempted to pile as many pennys as he could into one tower when he heard a tap on his door.
The door opened slowly to reveal a large figure in the shadows.
"Come in. Kettle's just boiling so you can fill the pot."
Tommy Milligan grinned. ~That's a good thing then. Well, Mr R., we've had a good crowd tonight, nearly run out of choc ices at the interval. But we're all right on tubs", he added as an afterthought.
Mr Roberts frowned. "Better look into that, Mr. Milligan, we don't want to get a reputation for sloppiness. Appearances are everything."
"Right you are then." Milligan smiled down at him. "leave it all to me, Mr R, no problem. I've even got me eye on a new line of sweets for the kiddies. The rep'll be in next week." He handed the teapot to Mr. Roberts.
"Thank you", said Mr Roberts pouring out his cup, "but you should refer the reps to me. That's the manager's job after all. It's milk in first with you, isn't it?"
Milligan nodded. "And let it steep for a bit first if you don't mind. I like something you can stand your spoon in. I'll give the pot of bit of a keck like, if you don't mind, Mr Roberts."
Mr Roberts handed over the tea pot. "You can check my figures if you would. We did very well tonight. If we go on like this we'll be making a very tidy profit by the end of the year."
Tommy Mulligan winked at him. "We will, will we?"
"Try to be a little more careful with the children, Mulligan. Miss...erm at the cash desk tells me that some of them try to get in without paying."
"Leave the little buggers to me, Mr R, I'll see to them. It's Elsie by the way."
Mr Roberts went back to his towers of coins, carefully entering the figures in his ledger while Milligan, his big hands clasped around the pot, swung its contents round and round in a precise ritual.
"There we are, if you'll just initial here."
Milligan poured out his tea, then stepped forward to put his name beside Mr Robert's signature at the bottom.
"I think that will be all for now. You can do your last check while I make the books up for the week. And mind that you look in before you go."
Terry Milligan emptied his tea down in one gulp then wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. "Better'n any pint is that. You'll be a lot happier with all that money in the safe, Mr R. and no mistake."
Contact F. David Peat
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