Short Fiction by Paul Goodman
Ever since Don Eddy won the Euromillions rollover that March things started to change for big Rich Battersby. For the rest of the men of the Faulkner’s Arms, this meant a new greeting. Mostly bald to a man, The Don’s preferred approach of slapping them on the backs of their heads meant that the resulting smack could be heard throughout the pub several times a day. There wasn’t much anyone could do: Don Eddy was the richest man we knew. Even more than Big Rich in the autorepairs game – Big Rich who owned three garages around town.
Time was this position gave Big Rich a certain sway over the men of the Faulkner’s. We all went to Rich with our problems, vehicular or otherwise. Even his barstool – his long before the Faulkner’s first laid its foundations – looked different to the others. Mostly because Big Rich was always on it, easy to spot in his pea soup workman’s polo, goutish fingers thatched across his torso, arms snaked in ink the colour of old pondwater. A word from Big Rich and the men of the Faulkner’s retreated like mandarins, scraping their foreheads as they moved backwards out of the room.
He took care of us, did Rich. When Terry Goves, after several pints of the Guinness and black, moved his van from its parking space into one that was unfortunately occupied by the landlord’s brand new Mazda Six, who was it who ironed out the kinks other than trusty Big Rich Battersby?
“Leave it to me, Govesy me old mate. It’s your money they’re after,” he proclaimed, scratching his silver goatee with an index finger the length of a car key. “They being the fuzz, mate, the money-grubbing boys in blue. The times I’ve been caught red-handed and bare-arsed – as it were – take it from me, it’s about your notes.”
“Yeah, right, Rich, right,” said Govesy, who was also scratching, but in his case at the bald spot on his skull, under his auburn curls. “It’s just, I wasn’t exactly on-piste, eh? Six pints of the black, Rich. I was sozzled. Seb’s got a case against me.”
Big Rich made a Here we go face. “Money, Govesy me old mate. Cheating us out of our hard-earned quids, and when we already pay tax on what we declare – as it were. What’re they doing? I’ll tell you: throwing the first punch, seeing if you step back. You just sidestep that now, sling one of your own and they’ll hobble out with more than just their tails between their legs. Besides, me and the men commented on a certain dictator’s dubious parking that very night, did we not?”
The men of the Faulkner’s nodded as one, some lifting their drinks in agreement, others preferring to focus on the telly in the corner as Sky Sports were covering the transfer window at the time and things were understandably tense. Pulling a crumpled tenner from the pocket between backside and stool and perching it between his index and middle fingers, Rich pointed the note at Sebastian like he was the last pick at five-a-side.
“Pint of Putin’s for me, Mr. Landlord. Get one for yourself, eh?”
Even Our Landlord – who art from Devon – was quiet around Big Rich. Our Landlord who insisted on Seb, but the men of the Faulkner’s were quite taken with the proper Sebastian, thought it much more fitting.
“Right you are, Rich,” he said, selecting one of Rich’s favoured tulip glasses and filling it with ale.
The thing is, before Sebastian slipped his nice soft hand inside the iron glove of ownership, the Faulkner’s was a staunch real ale affair. The landlord prior couldn’t put a foot wrong in that department: three resident ales, including one bitter, and five rotating guests, usually, but not always, including a local mild. Borne out of a long-standing relationship between supplier and proprietor, meaning best quality for best price, a brewer’s with a loyal customer, landlord with loyal troops, and happy men with big red guts under their jackets and vests coming back day in, day out. Sebastian farted around with craft lagers and sold Aperol Spritz in the summer. The wives all lapped it up, it’s true, but you’d never see the prior pandering to a woman. Not with that Italian muck – back then they made do with the wines, and that was that.
So when Sebastian showed up with his ideology – like Stalin he was, fiddling with his tash – and upped the price by twenty pee a pint, Rich was the one who lead the uproar.
“He’s laminating the Faulkner’s! We’ll be wipe-clean like a ruddy McDonald’s.” The consensus was – not just of Rich but all the men – that Seb should fall in line, work on fostering a solid relationship with the breweries, not faff about with his poncey crahft lahgers.
No worries where quantity was concerned. The ale surely flowed, but Big Rich had his favourites. No Disputin’ was the frontrunner; a light, fruity session beer if ever there were, and for that he was never satiated, his thirst never slaked. If rotation was kind, and one of the pumps was found sporting the hallowed clip with its pink floral border and that old Russian monk prancing about in his cassock, Rich leapt into his stool, couldn’t wait to wipe the flecks of foam from his goatee. And Seb could stop sweating.
If it weren’t, God help the man.
“What do you mean you’ve no Putin’s?”
“Now now, Rich, big man.” Stalin’s poor attempt at humour. “We rotate here in the Faulkner’s. Always have done. It’ll come round again.”
Seb never said anything different, and Rich, he’d raise both eyebrows and his cheeks would fill with disbelief before it was finally released on a warm breath of cheese and onion.
“Alright, lad,” he’d say, although it was anything but. “Pint of Best it is, then.” That jumped-up excuse for a landlord would select a tulip and pump it full of the pretender, the second best, working hard to give it a nice foamy head that, when settled, measured out at exactly one imperial pint of quaffable liquid. All before setting it just out of reach of the man, as he always did, which said to the men that Seb was quietly intimidated by his presence. Rich Battersby always made a show of rising from his stool to drag it closer, exhaling as he did like the hydraulics on a bus. Silence befell the men awaiting judgement; men who had previously ordered rounds of the incriminating Best and had enjoyed it immensely now swore they’d crucify old Stalin if Rich so much as grimaced. If, finally, Rich were to nod, no matter how small or slight, the room breathed its collective relief, as if Big Rich had his big hands around our throats and was saying, drink now, you’re alright.
And if not, well, God help us.
Don Eddy – just Eddy back then – was small in all ways except for his size. Taller and broader than any man there, he still slunk into the Faulkner’s in his postie’s uniform and shorts, long pale legs with Adam’s-apple knees and galaxies-old Doc Martens, mumbled his order of a pint of Best and scratchings and hid on the corner table beneath the telly where Marco, our resident black Portuguese, would be with his local paper and chalice of Stella Artois. Marco who always complained if Seb had run out of the trademark chalice, moaned that house glasses killed the lager faster than it was poured, but sat in the corner with his one pint for so long that it was flatter than the sandwiches by the time it reached his gullet.
Nobody minded Eddy’s pasty legs forever on show, his lanky stoop or red-raw lip that came from shaving with those nasty Bics; Eddy disappearing into a corner was exactly what was expected. Every now and then I’d catch a glimpse of the man looking sideways at Marco, forever taking in his breath like a man about to hold forth, only Marco never looked up, and as far as I could see Eddy never breathed out. That was just the way things were.
Come the weekend, however, of a Friday night when not just the men of the Faulkner’s but their wives were out in force, when it was customary for the regulars to partake of The Round, where was Eddy when it was his turn to buy? Not leant over the bar, waving his wad around, that’s for sure. Nights when the men emptied barrel after barrel until all that was left were the lagerboy drinks in the corner – far removed from the ale pumps near the tills – and the women buried the wine, then the gin until only the sloe was left and Seb forbade it to be sold or mixed with tonic. They were the times when Eddy was reliably absent without leave.
Of course, it not being in the men to draw attention to faults of character, no one paid it mind. Except for Big Rich. Whenever Eddy next came in for his pint and scratchings, Rich would rise up at his side, even though outside of working hours he made a point of not leaving his stool.
“Don’t suppose you could lend me a tenner, Eddy me old mate? Bit short this month. Living above my means,” he’d say, and Eddy knew his place. Face as red as his postman’s bag.
“Not today eh, Rich?” he’d manage, forcing a smile before retreating to the corner, where Marco sat reading his paper, letting his Stella warm and perish.
On the odd occasion a humbled Eddy could get the attention of Marco, the two exchanged the odd observation about Big Rich Battersby. Or rather, Eddy would blurt and Marco would look up, like a cow who’d heard something seven fields over, before returning his attention to the paper.
“That’s it,” said Eddy once, as Marco ran a finger over his short, pink tongue and dragged a page of his paper from right to left. “The way he sits there, it’s like my ruddy MP. Like a king, or something. Ain’t he?”
Not so loud that anyone else could hear, of course. He would have gone on, but Marco was looking at him in that way Marco does, that suggests the pair of you might not be on that even keel together. His gaze skipped about the room before it sank to the bottom of his pint.
Now it was The Don the men fell silent for, a thousand candles were snuffed out on Big Rich Battersby.
Not that Don Eddy thought of himself as a usurper. He’d better sense than to waltz into the Faulkner’s like he owned the place and start slapping a man like Big Rich on the back of the head. At any rate, Rich enjoyed a full head of hair, white as his face was red, and it wouldn’t have been very satisfying.
Don Eddy insisted to the men that his recent flutter wasn’t going to change anything. He still came into the Faulkner’s in his postie’s uniform, still drank his Best and ate his scratchings. Don Eddy wasn’t even quitting the business.
“I’m just an honest man doing an honest job,” he’d say, pulling out a twenty and sliding it through the bar spillages towards Seb. “Always have been, always will be.”
Of course it was rare nowadays that The Don would sit with Marco. Nowadays, he took the stool next to Rich, and made a point of getting his greeting in first.
“Get you a pint, mate? Putin’s is it?”
It weren’t often that Rich Battersby would say yes, not to Don Eddy. Not even with No Disputin’ on tap. Rich Battersby had to be smart about it. Being a driving man – driving straight to the Faulkner’s from his garage and then driving straight home after, five pints was a sensible, no-wiggle limit of an evening. What Rich did then, upon entering and finding the place Don-less, was order two pints as an opening gambit, making sure a third was on its way.
“No thanks, Eddy mate,” he could say then. “I’ll be driving.”
But if he capitulated, oh, the smile on Don Eddy’s lips was rich. Even in his postie’s uniform, shorts and knees blazing like beacons in the night, he was the superior man. One to be feared, not just by big Rich but all the men of the Faulkner’s, for even though he wasn’t going around slapping the matted head of big Rich Battersby at every opportunity, what he was demonstrating to the men was that he could.
Don Eddy, new to this degree of power, succumbed to it on occasion. Once, when the men of the Faulkner’s were enjoying a return of a favourite IPA from a brewer’s up in Tockston, savouring the hops, the mouthfeel that lingered long after the golden draught had settled their stomachs, Don Eddy suddenly took a clump of notes out of his shorts, spreading just the twenties out along the bar. This he did in silence, and when the men of the Faulkner’s took notice, we were silent out of respect, although none of us could explain why.
“Seb,” he said then. All eyes were suddenly on the landlord, stood in the corner near the lagers.
“Yes, pal,” said Seb, who’d been trying ‘pal’ for a few days now and hadn’t been called up on it.
“Give you a grand if you lock lips with Govesy.”
“I – beg your pardon?” Seb always went proper when he was startled. Usually the men would have a good laugh about that, but today we stared as poor Govesy’s face flushed haemorrhoid purple.
“What do you reckon? A thousand quid to get off with Govesy.”
Seb swallowed. “Now come on, Don.”
“Alright, how about Richard over here? I’ll give you” – The Don consulted his spread of notes on the bar – “ten grand. Cash.”
The men looked right at Big Rich Battersby, expecting a decision.
“Go on,” said Don Eddy. “Stick your tongue down his throat. Give him a good cuddle. Looks like he needs it.”
The Don looked between the propositioned, letting his deal hang in the air with the smell of sweat and drunkards’ clefts before smacking the bar, sending half the twenties into the air, and throwing back his head with a bark.
“Only ruddy joking! Just pulling yer legs. Deary me, the looks on your faces.”
The rest of the men about managed a titter but concern was running through the ranks. Marco was looking at me from his seat. He looked away when I noticed.
The weekend after Eddy produced his wad yet again, this time offering it to any of the wives who’d leave their men for a taste of The Don. “Yours! No, yours!” he cried, right up in the men’s faces, rolling around the bar like a teacup at the fair. The men stood in front of their wives giving him the good-natured laughter he was after. But his stack grew with every offer – one hundred, two hundred, a grand, silly money – and after a while, the men stopped laughing. They watched Don Eddy roil the room until most of them were warmed up and fists clenched, their wives holding them back until their eyes sank to the bottoms of glasses and their cocks snaked down trouser legs, defeated.
It was a Friday in November when The Don arrived earlier than his usual hour. As of late he’d taken on more work, not less, which was the custom for Euromillions winners; not only did Eddy have his rounds but he’d been putting in stints at the depot, helping out when they were understaffed. By the time The Don was usually free to drink, Big Rich – who, on the other hand, was working less and less as the days went by – could already be five jars down. But that Friday, in strolled Don Eddy at three in the afternoon, and not in his postie’s getup but a double-breasted suit the black of Guinness, pinstripes the cream of the head and winklepickers that aimed directly at any man who dared look. When he strolled in that day and took his seat next to Rich, who was still on his two starting pints, awaiting a third, we all began the long and painful process of holding our breaths in drinks.
“Thirsty man,” said The Don, clapping a palm around one of Rich’s shoulders.
“Putin’s back,” said Rich.
Don Eddy smirked. “I bet it is. A third pint for my old mate Two Drinks over here, Seb,” he said.
Let’s just say the dictator knew better than to meddle in politics. A tulip was filled with the amber liquid that drew Rich Battersby back to the Faulkner’s time and again and, as usual, set down just out of reach. But before Rich could climb out of his stool and close his hands around the glass it was snatched away by The Don himself. Big Rich made no further move but glared up at the man standing before him – although onlookers would later claim that his glare had a bit of the supplicant about it.
“Come on, now,” said Seb, when it became clear that Rich wasn’t going to be speaking for himself.
“Excuse me,” said The Don, “for thinking our establishment here was a place of revelry.” He had Rich’s tulip in the air like he was helping it out of a carriage. “Besides, he knows I’m pulling his leg. Don’t you, Richard, me old mate? I’ve got a job for you is the thing.”
Whatever it was that pricked in Big Rich, it weren’t his interest.
“Job, is it?”
Don Eddy furrowed his brow and nodded. “Just thought I could help. Heard things weren’t going too well at the garage. Trouble with the taxman, so far as I recall?”
Well, Big Rich was malt and hops in one mouth. The blood left his face faster than he could cover it with his glass.
“Afraid so, me old mate.”
Chatter rumbled up from the men. We all knew Rich was clever with his money. It was the first we’d heard of any troubles.
“Truly sorry to hear that,” said The Don. “Naturally, if there’s anything I can do to help, you know you only have to ask.”
“Much appreciated,” said Rich, still eyeing his would-be pint.
The Don stood over him a while longer.
“So about that job.”
With a sigh, Big Rich dragged his eyes back to The Don.
“Your motor again?”
Oh, that look in Eddy’s eyes.
“Exactly. It’s out front now, in fact. Thought you might have a nose around and tell me what you think.”
With that, The Don finally held out the glass that was his, an olive branch between two men. Big Rich slid out of his stool and his scuffed Hi-Tecs touched the floor. That was Rich: still the expert, still the pro. He was the one who told you what needed replacing and when; Don Eddy, for all his money and posh new clobber, couldn’t buy knowledge.
“Out here, my old mate,” said The Don, arm still as far around Rich Battersby’s shoulders as it would go. “Just outside.”
Indeed it was. Rich had made it out the front door and laid eyes on the brand-new motor parked outside beneath the greying sky, panther-black and ready to pounce, when Don Eddy suddenly let go of his shoulder; Govesy and Marco and the rest of the men later agreed how poignant that was, like the big man was in free-fall from that moment on. He couldn’t even open his mouth in case he choked.
“Ferrari,” said The Don, labouring over his vowels like he was down the Italian with a new missus. “What do you think? I want you to keep her clean. Bit of elbow grease and I’ll pay you handsomely, be sure of that.”
Rich looked sunburnt. “Well, mate. Bring it to the garage and I’ll do whatever you want.”
“Which garage, eh, Richard? You own so many – I’ll confused. Anyway, no, your end of town’s a bit dirty isn’t it? No point getting it clean if I have to drive back through all that shit. I was thinking you could come to my house – I’ve moved, by the way, I’ll give you the postcode – and clean it yourself. Mate.”
Rich went to speak but the sound that came out of his throat sounded like a snake coming out of a horse.
“Start now, if you like. I know you’re hard up. What’s minimum wage nowadays?” Don Eddy pulled a wrangled fiver from the arse pocket of his trousers and pinched it like a bag of turds from the park. “This do you? What do you say, Rich, me old mate? Are we on?”
Big Rich, well, he didn’t look so big anymore. Nor did anyone else, for that matter. The men of the Faulkner’s, reduced to squirts on troosies! Not a man among them was about to stand up against The Don and his money. The thought must have occurred to Rich and all, because even though he was gawping at his feet as he’d become accustomed whenever Eddy was about, there was something different about him that day. The jowls on his neck resisted the shame and his purple fists were clenched a mighty white, one at his side, but the other around his pint. Eddy just went on smacking his shoulder like it was the nicest thing he could do, oblivious to the fact he’d finally pushed Rich Battersby to his limit.
The men of the Faulkner’s saw the glass and sensed it, the blood – the crossing of that threshold – the violence a spell that bound them, and so terrified were they of its approach it was all they could do to keep holding their breaths and brace for an old head-on. And there was Marco, looking at me, only this time when I looked back he didn’t turn away – he was holding my gaze, staring right at me with eyes flatter than his lager.
I tell you now, I wasn’t having that.
“For fuck’s sake, Eddy.” I said, and just like that the spell went clattering down around us. “You made your point. You know we don’t take that kind of behaviour in here. Not in the Faulkner’s.”
Well, in the silence that followed those so-called men crumpled under Eddy’s glare. My heart, for what it’s worth, was humming, but when Don Eddy threw back his head and laughed that gloating bark, the men of the Faulkner’s laughed along all the same. Some harder than others.
“Alright, Scotty boy, alright. Sorry, Rich,” he said to the big man. “Me old mate. Just pulling yer leg.”
The Don laughed hardest of all.
Long after The Don had gone and the roar of his Ferrari shat its tyre tracks all the way along the high street, indelible as cuts to a man’s character always are, Big Rich, who by now was just plain old Richard Battersby, consoled himself with a fourth Disputin’. He’d drained the third – Don Eddy’s – like it was oysters. The chatter of the men of the Faulkner’s came creeping back like badgers in the bins, shy and sniffing for worries. Marco was back in his chair with the paper and the dregs of his Stella and didn’t seem to have absorbed a bloody thing. The men tried to talk about anything other than Rich Battersby, but I stared at Marco all afternoon and when he put on his coat and walked out into the dusk I supposed he couldn’t have thought anything of it.
Rich Battersby frowned and sank the rest of his pint. Slipping a fiver between his fingers he attempted to catch Sebastian’s eye, but our resident dictator was over by the lagers, working on a pint of Guinness for Govesy. Purposefully ignoring the man while he farted about like a barista, drawing his little clovers in the foam.
Rich crushed the note in his palm. Thirsty didn’t cover half of it. He closed his eyes and dipped his head into that same palm, note and all. Such was he didn’t notice old Govesy on the approach.
“Put a Disputin’ onto that as well please, Sebastian me old mate. And whatever Scotty’s having.”
“Ta very much. Hooch,” I called to Seb, who gave a nod as he put the finishing touches on Govesy’s latte.
Rich opened his eyes to find the saviour Govesy not just at his side but looking right at him.
“How’s it, mate?”
Now Rich was on guard, but detecting no trace of a barb in the kind words of Govesy, he sighed and accepted his pint with a swollen hand.
“Been better, mate.”
“You know what, Rich? I’d take the job if I were you,” said Govesy, studying his Guinness with a frown as it was brought to him. “You could cut his brakes or run a Phillips through his engine.” He turned to look at Rich then, his eyes growing wide at the thought. “You could do anything.”
Rich Battersby took a gulp of his ale. Sweet as ever, it settled in his stomach, and as he stared at the half-empty glass a rush of gratitude worked its way up past his eyes to the very top of his head.
“Maybe,” said Rich. He wiped the foam from his goatee and let out a belch. “That’d show him.”