The Old Man Grinner.
See, here I am; in the fireplace, the grate, the hearth, the dirt. Here I am; atop the hissing log, in the flame, the glow, the smoke; still I cannot raise a heat. I will whisper in the bubbling sap, shout as the pine cones snap. Here I am! I am here, in the cobwebbed curtain rail, close to the aperture; in the keyholes, the drunken cough, the phlegmy laugh, the mumbling, the chatter, the bottom of your glass. Here I am; at the dartboard, beneath the wire, in the floorboard slops, the crumbling lintel, the varnish of the bar. On the side of the cider bottles, between the sheets in the till. Here I am, beside you at the pisser.
Oh, if only you could see me now, you would not believe.
See, they put a picture of me on the label of every bottle called Old Man Grinner, but I don’t thinks it looks like me. They got me saying, ‘Gizza grin’ in a bubble – like what they thinks I’d say it likes. They got me in a fancy get-up; silk cravat, brocade jerkin, tricorn hat. They’ve got me looking happy in that picture, but I tell you, I ain’t happy, over here, what with being dead and all. Or whatever this is meant to be – sitting in the fireplace, looking out at the Eight Kings crowd, old and new. And I’m looking for myself in the mirror, any mirror mirror on a wall will do. But I don’t see me, see. And I’m cold as mackerel.
The Waylon Brothers.
This one here is called Stefan. He is a pinched man in pinguid denim; deep in his cups, he fists peanuts from a bar bowl. He also fingers a brimming ashtray, gripped by some aspect or other of its grey yarn. I watch him affix a grin between thin shoulders, look up into the vast mirror, an ornately framed pond expanse containing the crowded bar, and mouth something that he finds he finds amusement in.
Another man appears and takes the stool beside him. This one, a near copy of the first, but plumper, is called Alexis. Alexis lays an arm on the teak and greets the former thus. “Brother, there’s more piss on a pub peanut than there’s salt.” The pinched one, Stefan, swills a cider dreg around (and round again) the glass, eyes it sadly, considers his brother’s words and says, “I heard.” And, how he throws back and rolls that mouthful, and how he rhymes heard with weird, bends my ear. So I draws nearer to him.
They are the Waylon brothers. I watch and listen.
Alexis brought a lidded tin from a pocket, prised it, rolled two slim cigarettes from its contents, lit one, lit the other from the first and placed this one between his brother’s lips. The match burnt brightly for a moment, bent blackly in the ashtray, passed away. He flagged a fiver in the barmaid’s direction. “When you’s ready.” She looks up from where she’s been leaning, puts down a book that she’s been reading, makes steps toward them like a ballerina. Like what Margot Fonteyn might do.
“What yous readin?” Alexis says.
“A book.” Smiling.
“Sat’s right.” The tee shirt she wears hangs from her and she has no tits to speak of. Her hair is boyish, biscuit brown.
He is at a loss as to how to further the conversation, indicates his brother’s glass, taps its rim. “I’ll av an Old Man Grinner. He’ll have one, too. He ain’t quite ad enough.” Sparkling, she moved away as if to music. She had taken to dancing in her room above the pub in her free time and the moves that unravelled in that bedsitter had, with some inevitability, begun to translate into the everyday, imbuing the mundane with something subtle and otherworldly.
Alexis watched her, wreathed in blue cloud, draw the drinks. When she brought them he said, “Gizza grin.” But she didn’t.
They huddled and drank Old Man Grinner. Huddled and drank and smoked. They spoke in low voices. Stefan sometimes repeating his brother’s words.
“Will you stop doin that.”
“Jus gittin it straight in me head.”
Alexis leaned into his brother until their beaks were touching. “You do that. But do it quiet.”
The Waylons lived at Wellmead: Arthur; Clarice (née Trott); Emma-Jane; the newborn, Layla; the brothers – Alexis and Stefan – and the bed-bound octogenarian, Granny Trott. They resided in the glum faced house that squatted the tangled brome at the edge of Cress Cable Wood. Stefan dwelt in a ramshackle caravan that flummoxed out the front. When the old woman had arrived from the hospital she’d taken his room and he had slept a while in a bag beneath a rail of everyday coats and rubberised waders under the bare board stairs. But, what with the kid’s wailing above and the old woman’s coughing and the groans and clangour of the cistern, he soon found this wedge of space impossible. There were animals living behind the skirting, too, and their scratching etched his meagre sleep. He said it was like a coffin.
The caravan had been cream coloured once, but six years of rain-grease and mould now glazed it. Inside wasn’t so much better. But it was quiet. They’d once kept chickens in it, but now the chickens roosted a rusted shed on a guano patch of island in the waist high meadow. The birds came and went where the glass had been. They came and went with clumsy red and black shudders. At night the foxes padded the island, snuffling the ground, the animaled air.
The brothers stayed another cider, then another. Stefan went to piss and when he came back he scooped a nutted fist. His brother elbowed him and said, “Come on. I’m feelin lucky.”
Alexis drove. They drove the pick-up in silence toward Weston on the Bridport Road; a pair of moons racing the clouds. They passed a half bottle back and forth like it was a grudge match. The sea was whisky. At the crest of Cap Hill, the lighthouse beam flashed and the cab filled with brief light. Alexis said to the windscreen, the road, his brother, himself, “She had pretty teeth.”
He slowed the truck. Stopped. Rolled his head over his shoulder and reversed until a dark dirt track, black on black, appeared in the trees on the passenger side. He edged the pick-up into its mouth; cut the engine, cut the lights. He took the bottle from his brother’s lap. Finished it. “They’d make a lovely necklace.” Laughing.
They walked behind a pocket torch held low. The trees, bone white, bowed, weary, ushered them. The track became trail and everything became silent. They flowed through the bracken and came to a ridge where Weston could be seen, strung out in the firs like Christmas lights. They caught their breath and made some sense of the distant street lights and the few houselights. There was no breeze and the stars were smashed beneath the anvil clouds. Alexis said, “Come on. I’m feelin lucky.”
I followed, watching them from branches, from near and far; from high above, from foot of tree.
Dexter Bend of Or.
Cliff House, half in shadow, half in moon glow, heraldic (dexter bend of or, field of teal), slept at the base of a sharply rising cone, thick with gorse, among crowded outlines of pine; slow moving, whispering, sinister. The brothers stood in the yard lawn, ankle-deep, listened to the house. It was quiet. I listened to them breathing. I cupped their chests. The clouds, like cold iron ingots, stacked continuously above the wood in the night. Scatter of diamonds. The promise of treasure.
They walked around one windowless side of the empty home until they happened on a paved path, bordered here by felt cabbage shapes, here by shadow sheeting out into the night of nothing. The path delivered them to a sealed window with a kitchen caught within. Stefan saluted the glass, peered through. A vase of exhausted carnations stood on a dark wing of table. Out of the gloom, slowly appearing to his blinkered eyes, shoulders and elbows of dining chairs, the countenance of a clock, a flank of sideboard, knuckled with knickknack, and perhaps something shiny. He studied it all as a magpie.
They passed the back door, half-frosted (glimpsed kitchen again), came to a sturdy looking lean-to with a slant roof of plastic corrugate, built against the house. Stefan looked in: a firewood stack topped with tarp; tools – I spy a band saw, a wood saw, a pair of secateurs - hung from masonry nails in the wall. He saw an attractive jerry can, tapped it twice with the toe of his boot to gauge how full it was. He’d seen this done in war films. He guessed it to be a near gallon.
Alexis put his back to the wood shed, wide legged, made a stirrup of his hands and launched Stefan upward. He landed with a fuck and a crack of plastic. He giggled. The bedroom window was still ajar. He reached up and in, unlatched and opened it wide. Then he went back for his brother. But Alexis couldn’t get up and both saw a flaw in their plan. “Go get summit.”
I stood unseen in the glass.
After a few minutes he found a bucket on a hook in the lean-to. It smelt of cat piss and petrol and sap. He took the bucket, inverted it and stepped up on it, immediately stepping clumsily from it. Tried again. Failed. Alexis resettled the bucket some six inches away from the wall, took off his coat, balled it roughly, and slung it up onto the roof next to where Stefan lay, just his face and an arm reaching down. He stepped onto the bucket, breathed deeply and took his brother’s outstretched hand.
One Bar Too Early.
She danced in her bedsit room above the pub with an imaginary partner. He wore his hair combed into a neatly parted style, like boys might have done in the old days. The hems of his slacks were weighted. His shirt sleeves, freed at the cuff, revealing a slim, lozenge-faced watch with roman numerals. He wore a short, loosely knotted, brightly coloured silk tie, printed with bold blooms of roses and paradisal birds.
The record player, an open lidded box, clicked and hummed a warm hum. The needle edged out over the turning vinyl, hovered and dropped. They danced. Taffeta rising, rustling, shining, as he reeled her in and rolled her out again. They laughed like soon-to-be lovers; with sparkling eyes and smiles. She listened to his clear whisper in her ear. He was of the opinion that rocknroll had lost its way after The Kingsmen’s Louie Louie. That this song, this version of this song, was the defining moment of the genre. She asked him how so, he told her. He said he loved the mistake that comes at the beginning of the last verse. He said he loved the fluffed line; the line that comes in one bar too early. He said that dance had changed around that time. He said, “People began to dance alone. I guess we just let go of each other.”
The Young Galaxy.
The old woman, for something to do, counted, as best she could, the simply depicted stars that adorned the walls of the room. She counted the fading blue and red rockets and the planets depicted there, too. They numbered many. Her breath barely stirred in her chest beneath the heavy blanket and after some eternity, realising that her thoughts had drifted and the number had been lost, she began the count again, starting from the top left hand corner of the room, spreading her gaze slowly over the childish night sky wallpaper: the young galaxy spinning around her.