MEN UNWINDING

After his third pint, before his steak and kidney pud, Des would tell me again how he had once smashed in a blacksmith’s face. It had been an accident long ago; he’d been a young apprentice at the colliery smiths and the poor master had been over his shoulder when the hammer slipped from his grasp. It was a hard face, suffering only a minor fracture and a lot of bleeding, but the smashing of it had got Des the sack and caused a right upset back home. He’d say that from this end of life, he blessed all that fuss, if things hadn’t gone that way, he’d never have got into gamekeeping, the source of his prosperity. His life had not been one of homely happiness, due to his bad temper he had tended to hurt those around him, but he was not one to despair over the past, over his broken marriage and estranged children. All he indulged in were his moments of pride: he had kept deer for the Prince of Wales, he had bred falcons for Sheikhs, he had trained generations of prize-winning setters, spaniels, and pointers. He pointed down to the dog at his feet, a slender belton blue English setter. That there is Arrow, he’d say, the last of a great bloodline of hunters, she is 30 years old no word of a lie. Then he would hold a blank face for a few seconds, playing it deadpan, until came that sly smile. 

To the men at the bar he would act the old gent, but to women he was sharp, the waitresses were careful around him, and the old girl who cleaned his cottage lived in fear. But she who took the brunt of his lingering wrath was that old setter, Arrow. God only knows what he did to her behind closed doors; she wore a veil of melancholy, unnatural on a dog, clearly an animal beyond broken. One time he got cable TV and couldn’t get the bugger to work, so asked me if I could pop round after my shift to fix it. I fiddled with the remote for a minute and got it going, then accepted the offer of scotch. Through the smoke of a cigarillo, Des began one of his polished yarns about his time in the Royal Marines and led me through to the kitchen. In the corner, the sight haunts me to this day, was that poor animal in that cramped cage, shivering and cowed, snout between paws. Upon the second round of whisky, Des’ monologue changed from his military service to his firearm collection. In a daze I was hustled into a dark room, where the fluorescent tubes flicked on to reveal rows and rows of rifles. He went through the different models, taking down one to show me the fine machining, letting me feel the weight of another. Slowly irritation crept over me from a mechanical sound above us. It was the ticking of clocks, what must have been dozens of clocks, echoing through the ceiling, faint but persistent. I’d always despised clocks, so to notice a whole house creaking with them was quite unnerving. I drank my drink, untangled myself from his company and headed home.

A few months later Des was found dead, tied to a tree in Lea Woods, shot point blank in the head. The police marched all over the hills, hearsay blew through the local villages, but no suspect was uncovered. In a short while the sensation was smothered over by the rural calm, and Des’ fate became just another morbid pub tale. The setter, Arrow, turned out to be no more than 7 by the vet’s reckoning, and was taken in by the housekeeper, both now free from tyranny. 

2 years later, I had just started working at the Barley Mow when a well-spoken old guy walked in and ordered a large g ‘n’ t. He was reasonably dressed but had lost a few front teeth, I could tell he was going to be a talker. He introduced himself as Trev from up the hill, and I soon found out he was a retired solicitor, a former army reserve officer and that his wife Josie had died 9 months and 15 days ago. He spoke very quietly, almost a mutter, I had to lean over the bar to catch his drift. It was a rolling monologue requiring only the slightest participation, even when I was absent pulling pints he did not stop. After a lengthy analysis of General Stopford’s mistakes at Sulva Bay, he began talking about a person called Manfred. He had met him in the late sixties in a pub near Larkhill barracks, Trev had been sitting with his men and Manfred had come over and charmed them with his Royal Marines stories from WW2. One day, the squad arranged to meet Manfred at a private firing range, he brought some irregular firearms, submachine guns and such, and let the lads try them out. The others were all in awe of him, but Trev, being a military history buff, became suspicious of little inaccuracies in his war stories, and of the campaign medal he showed them not being legit… 

A family of 5 wanting food walked in and I had to spring into action, they had a screaming kid, the dad drank fiercely. Upon my return Trev was describing the murder of a young couple, not far from the barracks, on the edge of Salisbury Plain, both shot dead. The whole district was scandalized, the police were quick to round up some suspects and a man confessed, a simple-minded fellow who many thought was coerced into confessing. Despite the protests of the victims’ families about the poor handling of the case, it was closed all the same. One detail had caught Trev’s eye, the couple had possessed a pair of watches, rare antiques given to them by an aunt, they were missing and never retrieved…

The tallest of a group of youths came to the bar and ordered one pint and 4 cokes. I knew they had a bottle of vodka under the table, but I didn’t care, I wasn’t the landlord. Then Haystacks burst in and yelled for the football to be put on, like he did every day that the football was on. Many years of dynamite down the quarry had rendered Haystacks half deaf, so on receiving the remote up went the volume. Trev immediately abandoned his stories and became glued to the television. Haystacks tapped the Stella pump, ordered a lemonade top for himself and a g’n’t for Trev, a tenner landed on the bar and he turned to watch the match. Aside from a brief argument over the Hillsborough disaster, the night proceeded smoothly with the two men getting sloshed, while the youths played darts. 

By kick out time, Trev and Haystacks were pretty much propping each other up. Haystacks said he was going to drive, but Trev managed to talk him out of it and they both went staggering off. As soon as the last lingerer left, I locked up, and went trudging home with a joint on the go. Halfway up the hill I was stopped dead, I couldn’t comprehend the scene at first, a high contrast drama, a living Caravaggio painting. Pale as death, Trev was lying across the pavement beneath a streetlamp, frozen in shock like a fallen statue. The hulking form of Haystacks towered above him, raining down obscenities: You stupid old bastard, getting so pissed. Suddenly Haystacks clutched his stomach and was then vomiting over the limestone wall into the shadowy churchyard. Once emptied, Haystacks crawled off like a whipped dog, sobbing for his bed, and I was left with the inert form of Trev, muttering: I’d be most grateful for your assistance. 

Trev was surprisingly light, which was fortunate, because I was pretty much carrying him. He jingled his keys at the door for a minute before we got in, then I heaved him over to his armchair. I turned on the lamp and he began whispering: Did you hear the story of the gamekeeper Des? The one who was murdered? I nodded and he began telling me that Des was Manfred, Des was one of Manfred’s many aliases, according to the records he had never been in the Royal Marines, he was a professional liar, a conman, with multiple counts of fraud. But worse than that, he was also an obsessive and a murderer. Trev’s voice became weaker and weaker, he said Manfred had killed that young couple on the edge of Salisbury Plain… their watches, antiques, he coveted them… someone else knew too, someone who… Then Trev slipped into unconsciousness.

I stood up and looked around the lounge, it was starting to become squalid since Josie had died, the small touches of care fading. I noticed the grand Art Deco drinks cabinet and strolled over, it contained a jumble of bottles, a mixture of exceptional scotch and supermarket quality gin. As I was pouring myself something inexpensive, a sharp clattering startled me, it was the cat flap. A hulking ginger tom cat sauntered into the room, a fine specimen, muscular and aloof. In its jaws hung a field mouse, still faintly squeaking as it was deposited at the feet of the sleeping widower. I waited drinking until all fell silent beneath the unwound clocks.

J M F Casey is an artist and writer from the UK. He has exhibited in London, Ghent and Derbyshire and has had writing published online by The Educator, Misery Tourism and ExPat Press. His current interests include capitalist realism, 17c theology, soft propaganda, metagenealogy and Buffy. He lives with a trainee mystic in the Derbyshire Dales and devotes himself to research, short fiction and folk music. He is on Twitter @jmfcasey.