“Now then, Zipper,” he says. “Fancy a pint?” He’s sometimes a bit thick, Yobbers. I mean, that’s why we’re in here, right?
The Star and Anchor, mind, isn’t the place for the first one. The one you’ll remember the next day. Take a gulp, it dithers around on your tongue a bit, gives your gums and cheeks a coating of fur like the back of a caterpillar, and then forces its way down your gullet with the temerity of a ferret spotting a bolt hole. Still, here we are. Got a table by the gas fire.
Yobbers is on about how his old man’s buggered off with his great-auntie’s chiropodist. Now he’s the one that has to pick Auntie up every Sunday afternoon and bring her back for tea, which cuts into his post-roast beef nap, and I see this girl come into the snug.
His ma’s taken his da’s stamp albums, Yobbers tells me, and dumped them in the river, which must have taken quite a lot of gumption, as their house is at least two bus rides off. Turns out she took a taxi, thought it worth the expense. That kind of grand gesture. Borrowed the money from the Benefit, which she still collects on account of the young ‘uns, seven of ‘em under eighteen, as yet.
That gets my attention, ‘cos Yobbers’ da, that was his one passion in life, right? Stamp collecting. Before he took up with the chiropodist, I mean. Coach to a hotel in Leeds on a Sunday morning. Big banner in the lobby: Welcome, Philatelists! Men in anoraks tied under the chin. Flat caps. Vinyl shopping bags on their knees.
—Delighted to announce Mr. Guff will be offering a slideshow presentation on ‘The British Guiana 1c Magenta: Are There More Out There?’ A matter of considerable interest to us all. Look for him in the Ilkley Room after the break. Bear with me for another minute, if you will. I want to remind you about the ad hoc panel on glassine envelopes, which will meet in the Minster Lounge at the end of the program.
So here’s this girl, and now she’s got a drink, red wine, likely. Can’t see much more, because there’s a crowd around the bar. Think I might go over and have a word with her, if Yobbers ever shuts up.
Next minute, here’s Petey come in the door and says:
“Wotcha, my round.” He takes off his parka and looks for somewhere to put it. Ends up stuffing it on the windowsill with the copper warming pans and kettles and ladles, which the Star and Anchor has seen fit to provide by way of décor. He’s a Brut man, Petey. Got some in a gift set for Christmas one year, the splash-on kind, and we’re all holding our breath in the hope that one day he’ll splash his last. Base note of tar. Middle note: used tea bag, and a top note of fresh diesel oil. My opinion.
Yobbers tells Petey about his dad and the chiropodist, and Petey’s got his concerned mug on. Frees me up to look for the girl, and there she is. Slender fingers and long, oval nails. Dark hair in a pony tail. Nice figure. She’s holding the glass with one hand, doesn’t look as though she’s taken more than a sip, and making a gesture with the other. Not some stupid, irritating thing, like the girls in the back of the last bus. Let you feel ‘em up, and then text you every half-hour: We should talk!!!
Maureen’s not that bad. I’d never have bothered with her for more than a couple of times, otherwise. Though now her hormones are all to pot, being six months on, and that makes her moody. One good thing: she’s happier at home on a Saturday night. Feet up, a film and a mug of herbal tea.
Petey gets the ale in, and a bag of pork cracklings apiece, as an aide-digestif, while we wait on Greg and Romper. Greg’s got an old moped and there’s rarely a week goes by that he doesn’t have an argument with a post box, or some other piece of property belonging to, and prized by the local government. Worst time so far, he was on his way home across the Millennium Bridge, which is, of course, Pedestrians Only, except that it was pretty quiet and so he thought he’d just putter it over and who’s the wiser? A third of the way along, he tangled with a woman and her purple cardy, and her striped umbrella and her oversized shopping bag, and they boomeranged between the ingeniously-engineered and architecturally-astonishing steel cables, until they catapulted into the Ouse.
Turned out, she was a friend of Greg’s ma, on her way back from the Women’s Institute meeting, and—as we later discovered—deep in thought about how the W.I. was to go on with its fundraising in the next fiscal year, so she wasn’t on the look out for hazards.
Seems they’d tried all the usual things: jam making and cuttings from spider plants. Coconut cakes and crocheted patchwork blankets. Homemade greeting cards, banana wine, mince pies. Macramé totes, and of course, naked and unapparelled W.I. members, as made popular and commercialized by Helen Mirren and chums.
Well, they weren’t exactly starkers, I have it on good authority, the local ladies, though I didn’t see the calendar myself. Eccles cakes and curd tarts in the relevant places. Yorkshire puddings, too. Mrs. Atkinson was June, by the way. Harrogate toffee.
“Maureen doing alright?” Petey asks.
“Far as I know,” I say.
“When’s the baby due?” I shrug to shut him up.
Yobbers’ phone rings and he goes off. Petey sets out to get another round in, comes back instead with a pile of shoeboxes. “Jester says to give these to Greg.” Jester’s the landlord, no idea how he got that one; hasn’t cracked a smile since they announced Guy Fawkes’ Night.
Now Greg’s not the kind of man who tolerates you messing with his things. But Petey grabs the top box and opens it.
“Put it back, Petey,” I say. But it’s too late. He pulls out a pair of shiny red leather shoes, with six-inch spiked heels and a lot of black lacing down the front, like a corset. And they’re huge.
“What size does Greg take?” he asks.
“How would I know? Put them back!” I say again, but he’s on a roll. He opens the next box.
“Look at this!” It’s a silver platform sandal, with sequins in the form of a lightning bolt across the instep. “And this!” Another high-heeled number in a leopard print, with furry bits across the strap. I hear him growl. Now he comes up with an envelope.
“Don’t,” I say. But of course, he does.
“Until Tuesday! Annabelle,” he reads. “Who on earth is Annabelle?”
“Where’s me pint?” Yobbers asks, coming in. He stuffs his cell phone into his inside pocket, reaches for his glass and drains half of it. Puts it down, and only then sees Petey’s lap covered in giant female footwear.
Yobbers is giving serious thought to taking him outside and zipping his jumper up all the way, from the look on his face. Instead though, he says in a very reasonable tone: “What the hell are you doing?”
The snug door crashes open and Greg comes in, followed by Romper. Petey stuffs the shoes back under the bench. They get pints and come over.
“Now then,” says Greg, taking off his donkey jacket and flinging it onto a jug of peacock feathers.
I have a quick look round for the girl. I don’t see her, and I feel a sense of panic in my belly, which a less sensitive man might blame on the fishcakes Mam made for tea.
“What’s with the shoes?” Petey asks.
“Good question, good question, good question,” says Romper. “Greg’ll tell you.”
Greg’s gnawing at the cellophane on the corner of his cigarette packet. “You brought them here?” he asks Romper.
“Not me,” says Romper, chugging down the rest of his ale.
“And Annabelle’s looking forward to Tuesday,” says Petey, helpfully.
Greg’s not the sort that goes in for explanations, as a general rule—and neither is Romper, if I give it some thought, but now they’re stumbling over one another.
“Mrs. Atkinson is Annabelle!” says Greg.
“From the W.I.,” says Romper.
Well, I’m glad we’ve got that sorted.
“Alright!” says Greg, like a man breaking after a long stretch on the rack. “Mrs. Atkinson agreed not to press charges about the—incident on the bridge—providing I help her with the new W.I. calendar.”
I see a number of explanatory holes in the story. Nobody else pipes up, so I ask:
“What’s it about this year?”
Greg shakes his head. Donna Summer starts wailing on the jukebox. Jester comes round and picks up a few empties.
Petey has a flash of intuition, which must have sparked and illuminated the synapses of his brain like the national grid going down in a thunderstorm, and the like of which I’ve never heard from him—nor expect to—again. “It’s a foot fetish calendar!”
“You’re helping the W.I. with a foot fetish calendar,” says Yobbers, just to make sure he’s heard it right, and not suffering from fuzzy logic due to the seven or eight pints floating around in his gut. Greg nods.
“Romper’s taking the photos,” Petey says. If he goes on like this, he’ll have burned out the circuit board between his ears before the end of the night.
Greg nods again. Romper’s dad left him his old Leica when he passed last year and Romper was as happy as a barnacle on a tramp steamer.
“Annabelle has big feet, then?” That’s Petey.
“She’s tall,” says Greg. We swill the beer around in our glasses as we think this through.
Anyway, round about now there’s a sea change at the bar and I see the girl. She’s small, not wearing much make-up, simple gold earrings. She’s smiling at the other lass. Not one of those: Look at me, I’m standing here with a drink and smiling! smiles.
Just, you know. A smile, like: it’s Saturday night, and I’m out and about and let’s see where all this goes. That kind of smile.
That’s when it happens. Up until now, I’ve just been—interested, you might say. A connoisseur, if you will, admiring the fine art in the museum. A stroll through the gallery:
—Yes, yes, the Mona Lisa’s top notch, but far too popular for my taste. The Venus de Milo? Very pretty, but a little cold, don’t you think? Picasso? Well, call me old-fashioned, but I’m one of those people who like everything in its proper order: hair, forehead, eyes, nose, mouth, chin.
And the thing is, the thing is, the thing is, she isn’t even smiling at me.
You know after the first couple of pints when everything slips into focus? That’s the best I can do to explain it. No waltzing through some cartoon forest, with woodland characters singing the chorus and dropping cherry blossom in my hair. No arrows, no trumpets. No white horses.
And I think to myself, as I put my glass down—and Yobbers is pondering about Christmas Day: go to his ma’s like time immemorial, or take the Coastliner to Malton for tea with his dad and the chiropodist. Romper fancies a trip to the square for fish and chips. Greg’s for stopping in at the Chinese. Petey’s suggesting we go back to his mam’s for beans on toast.
—And I think to myself—now then, Zipper, me lad. Now you’re in for it.