Close the window
"Here, have a go at this!"
The short dapper-looking man in a suit had walked into the pub and was making very deliberately for the vacant space at the far corner of the bar. Very deliberately vacant.
There, one foot on the brass rail and bruising hairy forearm on the counter stood the dockside terror known as Jacko. Jacko stared ahead and sucked moistly on a cigarette kept damp from constant draughts of beer, and at intervals he looked about him with eyes that were much too small for such a big man.
"He’s goin’ straight for the corner!"
"Here we go…!"
They all knew about Jacko’s corner. For years it had been shared with his stevedoring mate Tim, as every afternoon after work the two big hard men had come roistering in to take up their station, right near the corner window to appraise the passing women on the street, and close by the telephone to place their bets with their bookie and conduct other business of a more dubious nature.
The two were a fixture there and bothered no-one if they were accorded the respect they felt was their due, they would call the lads’ attention to a passing good sort and were generous with telephone privileges. Although they frequently got into fights, it was nearly always with each other.
But that had all come to an end when a tensed steel hawser suddenly snapped and its recoiling end had lashed off half of Tim’s face. In the months since he’d lost his mate the big man became taciturn, he stood alone, morose and sullen, and drank from knock-off time till closing. Occasionally when he had a skinful he’d talk to himself and jerk his arms and fidget, ah Timmy they wuz good times mate he’d say and then take a resolute swallow of beer and chase it down with a deep drag on his cigarette: swallow, drag, swallow, drag, swallow, for minutes and hours on end. And no-one who knew the rules ever went near Jacko’s corner, under pain of an almost certain beating.
It was pretty soon after the accident that Jacko had conceived the idea of the sacred corner, his and Tim’s corner, but whether it was truly in honour of his friend or an excuse to pay out his now directionless viciousness on hapless transgressors, no one could tell. At the pub Jacko never had a sober word to say to anyone, while at work he was tersely hung over and even more feared. Jacko’s corner-rules, although initially somewhat unpredictable after Timmy’s death, had eventually been established through several summary thrashings handed out to the ignorant or unwary who had strayed too close for too long.
A couple of victims had mumbled about making official complaints; in the beginning the police had been called and Jacko would be lectured, but the cops were all too scared to take him in. He was too big and too unpredictable - and besides, if the fight was over then there was nothing more to be done. Other inconveniences weighed against the mediation of the law: as one constable pointed out, if you wanted charges laid you’d have to give evidence, and you’d be pretty game to give evidence against Jacko. The chances of supporting statements were also slim - the fights were brief affairs and the regulars, as to be expected, always happened to be looking away.
After an initial teething period however, Jacko had his little system in place and even semi-regulars knew well enough where they could and couldn’t stand. All of them, even the publican, skirted the corner like beaten dogs. In fact the owner had finally run a second phone line to the other end of the bar: it wasn’t just for the convenience of patrons - with the lack of communication his SP-bookie brother-in-law had been starting to feel the pinch.
Unless Jacko became unaccountably capricious, it was only the odd stranger who got a serve of humiliation or a cuffing anymore - usually to the amusement of the regulars and even the publican too, though he would normally manage to look censorious. It had become a kind of game they all played and their enjoyment came from the occasional appearance of some poor soul who didn’t know the rules.
The last occasion had been rather different however, and while there had been certain entertaining aspects it had left them all feeling a little uneasy with themselves. Even Jacko too, perhaps. It had never occurred to them that he had become as bound by his rules as everyone else.
Late one July night of intermittent rain and gusty southerly drafts, a very pretty girl had walked in, and after some hesitation and a quick confused glance about her had made for the telephone in the corner – that corner, vacated only seconds before by an already well-lubricated Jacko who had gone off to drain his bladder.
She removed her overcoat and draped it over one arm, and began to search prettily in her pockets for coins; as she did so her chestnut hair waved and the little droplets of rain on the strands glistened like gems. She dialled a number and when the coins dropped she began speaking animatedly in a bright sweet voice.
The conversation in the pub had plunged to a buzz as they looked and listened on. There hadn’t been a decent girl in there since the landlord’s daughter had left in April, spent with the frustration of ever giving the place any class. True, a few blokes’ wives occasionally turned up, but that didn’t count. No, no doubt about it, the lass was a stunner and all were so lost in admiring her long legs and impressive figure, discernibly curvaceous in skirt and short jacket, that they forgot all about Jacko and his corner.
So it was that the re-appearance of the big man caused a sudden communal flinch. Jacko was not known for his winning ways with women. And this was no woman like Jacko was used to.
"Alright daddy, don’t worry then, I’ll get a taxi…" she finished, "love you too… ’Bye". She had just hung up and was in the act of turning around when Jacko walked up behind her and placed a heavy hand on her shoulder.
"Well, well, you’re a bit of alright. But you’re in the wrong spot… Ain’t she boys" and he gave a triumphant look around the room. "So I guess you’ll just have to buy me a drink, won’t yer darlin’?"
"Oh, I’m sorry, but… But I have to leave now. My car’s broken down you see, and I need to get a taxi… My father will be waiting…"
"So let ’im wait. You’ll be stayin’ for a while love: I just invited yer to buy me a drink." The man’s hulking body and heavy hand had her well and truly cornered against the bar.
"Easy on, Jacko", offered the publican ineffectually. This was not exactly within the rules.
"Fuck off Billy. This young lass wants to buy me a beer, so you can just serve her and shut up."
The girl gave a frightened nod at the publican, one beer you could almost hear her thinking, and the publican shot a look at her and Jacko in turn and served a schooner.
"Ah! Mother’s milk!" sighed Jacko in satisfaction. "Here love, what’s your tipple then?"
"Come on, I mean what would you normally drink? Beer? Wine? Nah, Classy little thing like you, you’d like something more special. Gin Tonic or something fancy like that, am I right?"
"But I don’t usually…"
"Jeesus, am I right or not? Fuck, I’m just makin’ conversation. It’s only fuckin’ polite to answer when somebody asks yer a question. Or didn’t your mummy and daddy teach you any manners? I might be just a wharfie but me old man taught me, too right he did."
The words seemed to shrivel the girl’s soul, and her eyes turned inward in fear and confusion.
"I… I… I like Pym’s sometimes," she stammered.
"Fuck me dead, Bill!" Jacko laughed a beery laugh. "Pym’s! Have you got any of that fairy’s piss in here?"
"Uhm, there is some left I think… My daughter used to order it in. You never knew when someone might ask, she used to say..."
"Forget what that little trollop used to say and let’s have it then, you fix this young lady a drink. And be generous: it’s her that’s buyin’ after all."
The barman gave a sour look and then ducked under the counter, where he rummaged a while before lifting out a bottle of Number One Cup. The girl shook her head, and looked pleadingly at the publican.
"Just have a quick one love… You know" and he looked sidelong in meaning at Jacko, who was staring down fixedly into the girl’s cleavage: the poor lass had been dressed to impress - the cinema, or dinner perhaps.
"Yeah, come on sweetheart", said Jacko, slow to relinquish his present view. "You have a drink while I tell you all about meself."
"But I really must…"
"Nobody else stands in this corner. Unless they’re drinkin’ with me. Them’s the rules. And right now it looks to me like you’re standin’ ’ere, so that means you’re havin’ a drink," he concluded with that massive hand on her shoulder.
So the frightened girl in the rough dockside pub took out her purse and paid, and thus began forty minutes of torture for her, as Jacko kept drinking beer and making sure she ordered and finished her glasses of Pym’s. As he ogled her and kept her close, he spoke expansively about himself, about his feats on the wharves and the men who’d feared him, of the fights he’d won with his mate Tim, of the fights he’d had with his mate Tim, and about Tim himself and how the poor bastard had misplaced half his face, very careless he was old Timmy. He spoke of the hallowed corner and the good times and how privileged she was to be there. It was more than anyone had ever heard him say since Timmy had gone.
The girl could not have appreciated Jacko’s newfound garrulousness: she simply became more frightened as she was obliged to ply herself with alcohol, and would occasionally look around appealingly for help amongst the regulars. But none would return her desperate looks and a few even smirked at the way she was becoming rather tipsy: daddy’s little girl was being taken down a few pegs alright. And on Pym’s of all things… I mean yer had to laugh.
Finally Jacko got onto the subject of her and him. Gail her name was, he’d got that out of her after the alcohol removed what judgement the fear hadn’t already taken away. A bloke like me could please a girl like you Gail, ah little Gaily you’ve got no idea whadda real man is. Those pimply-faced little shirt-lifters you hang out with wouldn’t know what to do with a little corker like you, Gail. I could teach you a thing or two. You’ve got the goods you have. I’d have you purring like a little pussycat make no mistake. And then he launched into an appraisal of her attributes: her legs, her arse, her tits. It was as if her face and her eyes and her hair didn’t even exist.
Her breasts were particularly fascinating him now, and that ham-hock hand on her shoulder was sliding downwards. She tried to fend him off and he remonstrated:
"Aww come on, you love it. Youse all love it. That’s what those lil’ beauties are there for ain’t it? For blokes like me to touch? Carn, let’s have a feel, eh?"
Panicking now she pulled and twisted in haste, and Jacko grasped at her blouse through the open jacket to retain her, and the material tore and there she was exposed before the entire pub.
"Now that’s what I call a nice set of tits, eh boys?" called Jacko looking around with a guffaw, and it gave the girl her chance. She lunged for her coat and purse and turned and ran to the open street door, sobbing and clutching her jacket lapels across her chest. From somewhere behind came a wolf-whistle and a cackle, and despite her distress she turned at the doorway and looked back inside unseeing through her tears.
"You’re all a disgusting bunch of cowards" she cried, clutching her clothes about her. "All of you!" and then she turned and was gone. In the ensuing sheepish silence her heels could be heard clattering around the corner and downhill towards the harbour and the taxi rank.
"Win some, lose some", said Jacko to no-one in particular. "Oi, let’s try some of that lolly water she wuz drinkin’… Fuck! Talk about pig’s piss! Oi Billy, bring us another schooner will ya. And you lot fuckin’ turn around" he finished warningly at the rest of the bar. "That lil’ sheila was right: you’re all a bunch of gutless pricks". He took a long swallow of his beer, and with a shrug of resignation remarked to Bill: "Ah well… She’s prob’ly a dyke…" Bill frowned and said nothing; he wiped the bar down and collected some glasses. The Pym’s bottle still had something left, but for some reason the normally thrifty publican found himself dropping it in the bin.
The following evenings Jacko was quieter and more sullen in his corner, and he simply stared ahead and smoked as the beers traversed the bar. Maybe the girl had affected him, or maybe it had been all the talk about Tim. Whatever, the locals were giving him an even wider berth and Bill was particularly quick to pour.
This mood of Jacko’s lasted a week or so, but eventually he began to glance around again and seem less pent up. He was still essentially silent, though; it was remarkable how much he could drink without conversation.
And that was how things were when the trim forty-something little man in the suit walked in the door late one evening. He wasn’t the normal class of character to be seen in those parts: tanned and spry-looking, he looked like he might drive a sports car and sail or play squash. And first to collective surprise and then anticipation, this neat little sporty executive-type marched straight for the corner, placed his hands palms-down on the bar right next to Jacko’s glass, and called up to the publican:
"Whisky and soda please". Bill’s eyebrows shot up, but before he had time to reply, Jacko, already quite drunk, kept staring straight ahead and snarled:
"What the hell do you think you’re doin’?"
"Pardon? Nothing… I was just ordering a drink."
"No one drinks here unless I say. This is me mate’s spot. And mine. You just broke the rules mister."
The locals held their breaths and leaned forwards: this little bloke was odds on to provide some fun.
"I’m sorry. I… I didn’t know about any rules…"
"Well they’re there," said Jacko still looking ahead. "An’ you can be sorry all yer like, mister, but rules is rules. An’ iggerance of the rules is no excuse". This was more like it. He kept looking straight ahead, but his sausage fingers spread open on the bar and then made a casual fist. Jacko’s bit of theatre: the first part of the humiliation was to give nothing and let them squirm and try to guess what they’d done wrong.
"I… I respect the rules too you know… Of course I do…" The little man seemed to have come to a rapid grasp of the danger in the situation. "I just didn’t realise… Look, perhaps… Perhaps if I could stand you a drink…?"
Jacko’s huge bony head was swivelling over his shoulder like a dreadnought gun turret, lining up the objective beside him - and with Jacko, there was often no warning shot across the bow. But perhaps events lately had softened him a bit. The pert neat little man had dared address the terror, and the terror’s little eyes opened a little as he seemed to size up his new victim’s stature and social class. Maybe Jacko saw something he thought he could respect, or maybe he took in the fellow’s expensive-looking suit and tie and began to think money. Whatever, something happened that turned the pub’s expectant smirks to almost comical surprise. Jacko passed a dinner-plate hand across his mouth and turned to the landlord, whose knuckles stood out white as he clenched the tap.
"Schooner, Bill. Resch’s. And keep ’em comin’. And you keep payin’ for ’em, midget, for as long as I’m ’ere. Them’s the rules for now."
"Just you shut up and keep that beer coming, got it? And order something for yourself, yer little ponce. You don’t stand with me unless yer drinkin’ too." And the little man set his mouth in what Bill said later was kind of like grimness and held out a banknote and the first of many beers crossed the bar.
So the improbable couple stood side-by-side drinking as the clock-hands dragged around, the little man ordering whisky and sodas, which he sipped between glances at the television and the necessary exchanges with the wary-looking publican. The big man all the while was purposefully smoking and downing beer, like any other night spent there on his own, except any time the smaller man might have seemed to ease away, a heavy hand tightened on his sleeve and Jacko would remind him: "it’s still your shout, shortarse".
After the promise of immediate violence had faded the locals got back to their own drinks and conversations, although they made sure to direct occasional glances over at the pair in case anything should develop. But Jacko drank and smoked and the man paid, and it appeared a form of equilibrium had been struck. It was like a curious silent parody of what had happened with the girl a week or so before. When everyone thought about it later, Jacko definitely hadn’t been himself since then.
But then pay-day was a couple of days distant too, and now Jacko had apparently put the fear of God into the little man he was reaping more beers than he could normally expect - pay-day or not. And those beers were tasting fine and they kept on coming. The little man was drinking too, just sipping, and although his face was rather flushed he seemed remarkably sober. At first Jacko had looked to make sure his companion was keeping pace, but as he became drunker he began to drink harder, meaning perhaps to drain his benefactor’s wallet dry - he’d always managed to do it with his own, after all. But that wallet seemed inexhaustible - so much so, that each time the little man ordered himself a fresh whisky and soda, it didn’t seem to bother him if the old one was going back half full.
Jacko was not for noticing such subtleties, having become so inebriated that the other’s behaviour had ceased to concern him at all. Gone the original menace, the big hand on the fellow’s arm was almost matey now and Jacko’s large frame was beginning to sag and soften. And no wonder: the beer was flowing like it hadn’t since the best of times with Tim, and still the notes kept going over the bar and the beer kept coming back; the little man obviously had resources and, fuelled by sentimentalism, Jacko was starting to feel a drunken and grudging respect. Indeed, this might have been a good time for the stranger to try to slink off, but he failed to do so, and this too was remarked upon later on.
Jacko had a faraway look to him: it was when he was deep in his cups he was at his safest - then he became maudlin and absorbed in reminiscences about the few scattered intimacies he’d managed in his violent life. He drained yet another glass and slapped it unsteadily down.
"Ah yer not such a bad old skin are ya, shortarse?" he slurred, his first conversational words for the evening. "Not like this lot," he jabbed the air behind him with a massive thumb: "I wouldn’t give this pack of pricks the time o’ day. Nah, no one worth a pinch of shit in here now, except you an’ me, shorty. Not now me best mate’s gone."
And then the little man said something that made the publican start.
"Yes. That was a pity about Tim."
"Yeah… Huh? What?" slurred Jacko, his eyes rolling. "D’jou you say Tim?"
"That’s right" replied the little man, "Tim."
"Yes, I know. "
"Didja know Timmy then?"
"No. I just heard some things. Through my daughter."
"Yer daughter, eh? Ah ha ha, I geddit. Yeah, Timmy wuz a lad, alright… So wuz they an item then, wuz they?" Jacko somehow managed to make that ‘item’ sound cheap.
"No, she never met Tim. I don’t think he’d have been her type, either. No: she only met you".
"Me..? Bullshit… Whass your name? Oi, I ain’t seen yer before, ’ave I?"
"No. I’m Gail’s father."
The publican, who had been half-listening to the men’s conversation, froze in his task of racking glasses. There was something…
"Gail? I don’ remember any Gail."
The little man’s face and eyes were bright.
"But she remembers you. Very well. And she told me all about you."
Jacko was rolling and slurring, and a puzzled look crept into his eyes:
"Gail, Gail, don’ remember… What’d she say about me?"
"She said", spoke the little man very evenly while looking straight ahead, "that you were a drunken animal." The surrounding tables fell deathly silent and the publican paled as Jacko’s features began to register the shock. The little man glanced up at the television and then turned to look at the huge man and went on: "the most revolting creature she’d ever had the misfortune to meet…"
"What the…You fuckin’ little…!!"
Side-on until then, Jacko was now swivelling unsteadily to face the source of those unpardonable insults while his eyes struggled to focus on a target to hit in his growing rage. It was then that the little man’s knee drove up into Jacko’s crotch with all the force of his hips behind it, and as the behemoth doubled over and vomited up gallons of beer his assailant stepped back and delivered a low sideways kick that smashed his left kneecap. Groaning, Jacko slumped and clutched at the edge of the bar, and as he did so his face met another rising knee that pulped his nose and lips and broke his jaw. Three seconds of stunning brutality, and the neighbourhood goliath lay face up on the floor amidst the spilt beer and cigarette butts, somehow still conscious while blood and vomit frothed out of his ruined face.
The little man quickly straightened his bespattered jacket, in what seemed an almost unconscious dissociation from the results of his handiwork, and before anyone could move had slipped agilely out the door. Instants later an engine was revving and a door slammed, then a squeal of tyres as a car accelerated up the hill. By the time a couple of the stunned onlookers could gather their wits and rush outside, the dark winter street was empty.
As the patrons began to crowd the forbidden corner, scratching their heads in amazement at what they’d all just witnessed, there came a horrid noise from the shattered giant on the floor. It had sounded like a chuckle.
"Ehh", he voiced as his chest convulsed: he appeared, incredibly, to be laughing, while tears – it was impossible to know whether of pain, fury, sorrow or real mirth – rolled down his cheeks, and his mouth blew shining crimson bubbles as he attempted to form the words that refused to come. But Bill crouched down next to him and was able to make out quite clearly:
"Tell that li’l prick… that ’is daughter’s got nice tits… and that it’s still ’is fuckin’ shout…"
Then Jacko’s head fell back and he lay alternately groaning, laughing or sobbing or whatever that convulsive heaving was, and Bill stood up and went to make for the telephone at the far end before shrugging foolishly to himself: the rules didn’t apply any longer.
Later, after the ambulancemen had been and gone, the publican shut the premises and a few select regulars stayed on to dissect the events of the evening. As they sat at a windowside table and smoked and talked over what would become local history, there behind them in Jacko’s bloody corner, a half-filled whisky glass and an empty schooner were still sitting side-by-side and forgotten on the bar.