Too late to talk to Benny
It was everybody’s local -if you were local-an old man’s pub, that had been slapped about a bit, with paint, tarted up, to look younger. A pub where nobody bothered you, and that’s why almost everybody drank in it. That and the pool table.
Stevie went there to drink and play pool. A winning combination, because he thought he played better when he was drunk than when he was sober. He hadn’t actually empirically tested that idea. The sober part he knew only appealed to women and non-drinkers. His hair wasn’t what it used to be, was edging backwards, away from the hunter-gatherer Neanderthal look, and he’d put on a bit of a gut since he’d given up playing fitba, but he didn’t have tits yet. Pool was his game now. Outside the corridor of fag smoke, top ten hits blaring on the jukebox, and pub chat, he lived under the lights, were every speck of lint was magnified, picked up and looked at as if it was a pool ball trap, sabotage of the worst kind, that had stopped the true trajectory of the balls.
Wee poodle-heid Gerry, the puppeteer, brought a black case, sprung the gold hasps, opened it up, and let his cue do the talking. Eyes trained, a subtle nudge, a wink and the ball was in the pocket.
Stevie was playing against wee Gerry, but really playing against himself, tippy-tapping the balls about; couldn’t be too careful with the black sitting over the wrong bag. He’d a McArthur’s branded pub cue, good enough to use, but not good enough to steal; the tapered end straight enough to hang a ball, the other end good as a reminder, good as a baton.
Outside the bright lights, the faux brown leather seats of the amphitheatre were marked by slashes and stabbings and horseshoe foam bites that gave the place character. Or so the Mc Clearys said. Nursing the swill of warm lager, with half an eye on the action, pressed up against the wall, having a craic and a laugh, and an opinion on every other fucking thing. They couldn’t help themselves. That’s just the way they were. Forces of nature.
They liked a bet, and stacked pound coins, then fivers, then tenners, spread out like loose change, on top of their table. Marty McLeary was betting on poodle-heid Gerry. Money on the nose, or on the head, because he didn’t like losing, especially to his big brother. Stan was betting on Stevie, for the hell of it, because it was against his brother and it would be all the sweeter when he won. It was only a game, but they were playing to win, standing and shouting and gesturing, with arms like banners and smacked, look at me lips, at every ball that trembled on the edge of a pocket.
‘Stan, Stan, Stan, what did I tell you about picking losers?’ said Marty.
Gerry had a shot on the black ball, bottom bag for the game. It wasn’t easy, but he could see it and it was a straight path through two balls that Stevie had sitting defending the bag. If Gerry was a fraction out he would hit one of those balls and, like a King stranded in the middle of a chessboard, he would lose. Gerry always took his time eyeing up the shot, walking around the table, chalking his cue, as if he was on Pot Black. It wouldn’t have surprised anyone if he had pulled a theodolite out of his snooker case to line up the shot.
‘Fucking hurry up,’ shouted Marty.
Stevie stood supping his pint, the game that he’d played flashing past his eyes. He was shaking his head, couldn’t believe that he’d missed that last shot. But was unwilling to concede. He’d never give in, not when there was a chance. He watched as Gerry addressed the cue ball and flinched when he actually hit it, as if someone had smacked him on the jaw.
‘What the fuck was that?’ said Marty, looking on in disbelief.
‘A snooker,’ said wee Gerry, chalking his cue, looking to see that he’d left the white ball safely behind the black.
‘That was a push shot,’ said Stevie, reanimated, springing away from the pillar that he was leaning against, cue at the ready. ‘Free ball, two hits to me.’
‘For a start,’ said Gerry, wandering over to get a draw of his fag out of the ashtray, ‘it wasnae a push shot. I hit it cleanly. And you don’t get a push shot in pool’. He took a sip of his lager.
Stevie was already over at the table lining up his shot, as if he’d cloth over his ears. He’d his cue lined up to knock the black out of the road, pot his other balls and win the game.
‘Dae that and it’s two shots to me,’ said Gerry sipping his lager.
Stevie briefly looked up at him, but his cue position hadn’t changed. He nudged the black ball aside with the white ball.
‘That’s two hits,’ said Gerry, taking another sip out of his pint and putting it carefully back on the same position on the beer- mat.
Stevie didn’t look up, carefully positioning his feet, then his hands, as if they were a separate part of him, and when he’d set himself at the right angle, he potted one ball and the cue ball screwed back perfectly to pot the other.
Gerry almost sprinted to the pocket where the first ball had been potted. ‘That’s two hits,’ he said, talking as if he was out of breath. He put his hand down into the pocket, blocking it off.
Stevie didn’t look up, drew his cue back as if he was going to power the cue ball into the other, regardless of whether Gerry’s hand was in or out of the bag.
‘What do you think you’re doing arsehole?’ said Marty.
‘Go on,’ said Stan, ‘pot it’. He was holding onto Marty’s arm so that he couldn’t get out from behind their drink-laden table.
‘I’m telling you wee man, pot that and you’re dead,’ said Marty.
Stevie hesitated, but his eyes never left the table. Slowly the white ball trickled against the last remaining ball before the black. It sat on the rim of the bag and rolled around the ellipse. Wee Gerry moved his hand so that the ball seemed to fall more slowly than usual.
The table behind Stevie toppled in response. Full Pints and half pints; glasses with a mouthful in them; ashtrays full of yesterday’s fag ends; today’s bets; all washed up with a smash and clatter on the uncarpeted floor. Stan was laughing, ‘go on Stevie,’ he shouted. He’d grabbed Marty back by the arms and when that didn’t work wrapped his legs around him. Marty had pulled him off the seat and onto the floor, but he hung on. ‘I’m warning you,’ Marty kept repeating, but what the warning was, or whether it was directed at Stevie, or Stan, was lost in the rodeo of laughter from the latter.
The jukebox ran through its empty medley of ‘Stuck in the Middle with You,’ but nobody was listening and, at no extra cost, everybody was watching the wrestling in the corner of the bar.
Nobody seemed to be watching as Stevie rolled the white cue ball, slowly, ever so slowly, up and onto the black. It clicked and hit. The black ball tottered and teetered and fell into the mouth of the waiting bag.
‘Good game,’ said Stevie, looking smaller in victory and sticking his hand out.
Wee Gerry gave it a perfunctory shake.
Alan the bar manager scooted by them. ‘That’s enough,’ he lisped in his effeminate tone. ‘Any more of that and I’ll bar you’.
‘Oh, don’t bar us Alan,’ said Stan grinning. ‘Please don’t bar us.’
They were both seated and had pulled the table back up onto its feet. Alan was standing one of the two stairs that led up to that part of the bar. His Clarks shoes, not set for that altitude, gripped the bottom step, holding him back. He had dish rag in his hand and this made him look strangely vulnerable, as if he was Judy Garland, without Toto, swept up from behind the bar and out into a maelstrom that was nothing to do with him.
‘Right, that’s your last chance,’ said Alan.
‘Get us a pint, will you Alan,’ chipped in Marty. He was grinning now as well, as if the carnage surrounding them had made them feel better about themselves. ‘Get one for yourself too,’ said Marty, flicking a pound coin at him.
‘Cheeky beggar,’ said Alan, flinging the towel over his shoulder and slowly walking back down to the bar.
‘Fucking old cunt!’ said Marty, but without any real spite.
Alan chose not to hear. ‘You better get that cleaned up,’ he said to Marty when got to the bar.
‘Yeh, yeh,’ said Marty, walking broken glass into the floor tiles when he went back up to his table.
Stevie was playing somebody else at a pool, an older guy, that he knew he’d beat. He didn’t look over at the McCleary table, just made the short run between his pint and one shot and the next. He kept a firm grip on his cue. Didn’t like to admit that his hands shook a little bit and he’d have liked to have just threw the game and go somewhere else, to another pub, another part of town.
He’d a bit of dealings with them in the past, in the Young Offenders, the YO. Stan had grabbed him and Marty had plunged him a few times, around the buttocks and stomach. It was only a wee knife, but the medics said that he could have cut some artery or something, and died. But they always said that, just wanted you to grass someone up. Only the lowest of the low did that kind of thing. Segregation with the paedos. That was never on. They’d patched it up. Said it was a mistake, that we all came from the same wee bit of town, and it was mad fighting with each other. It was no big deal. That had been a good few years ago. But Stevie had never trusted them, knew that Marty would be eyeing him. But he would never let them think he was scared.
Marty wasn’t eyeing him. The juke box had been turned up to pump out some ‘Stand by Your Man’ kind of crap that only a woman could like, or would pay for, but it made it difficult to hear. He was bent forward, with his hands between his legs, as far as he could go, without falling off his stool, his head almost touching his brother’s. Stan finally got around to their business for that day. Scores that needed to be settled that weren’t on the results section of the clapped out telly in the corner.
‘We have a problem,’ Stan said, ‘Benny’s talking.’ He laughed and took a sup of his pint. He’d changed to Guinness for some reason, as if lager wasn’t heavy enough for the delicate matter in hand. ‘I don’t have a problem with Benny talking.’ He took another drink, letting the bitterness run down his throat; play out on the slightest grimace on his face, as if he was drinking cough medicine. Benny’s always talking. Making jokes. Trying to be funny. I don’t have a problem with that.’ He took another drink. ‘I like Benny... Everybody likes Benny... But Benny’s been talking to the wrong people’.
‘I like Benny,’ said Marty, nodding in agreement. ‘But if he’s been talking, what can we do? You want another drink?’ he said, pointing to his pint of Guinness and waving his empty glass about to show he was finished. ‘What can you do?’ he said, walking down to the bar. ‘Maybe get one of the muppets to take care of it?’ he said, nodding towards Stevie.