Christobel and The Monkey (Part 1 of 2)
At ten past eleven on a warm Thursday morning, a small, thin, middle aged man pushed open the door of the Bell and Whistle pub on Commercial Street, in one of London’s less fashionable areas. He wore a black quilted anorak and grubby grey trousers, and was accompanied by an odour of unwashed clothes, stale alcohol and elderly curry. The dark stubble on his chin did not look designed.
Bob glanced up. He was pulling a half of Goatherd’s Nose behind a bar whose rich patina seemed, by the aroma of the wood, to owe more to beer than polish.
There was only one other customer in the pub, a stranger sitting on a faded blue bar stool, watching the Goatherd’s Nose emerge slowly from the pump. The man flinched slightly as Albert came within scenting distance.
Albert’s lined, narrow features creased into a frown. His pale blue eyes viewed the man suspiciously.
‘Morning,’ said the stranger.
Albert grunted, turned his back and leaned across the bar, indicating that his conversation with Bob, though audible, was private. ‘When Christobel comes in, you haven’t seen me.’
Bob put the half on the bar, adding a few more drips to the wood. ‘Albert, don’t put me in the middle.’
‘You haven’t seen me, Bob.’
‘She’ll ask where you are, because you’re always in here.’
Albert shook his head emphatically. ‘You haven’t seen me and you don’t know where I’ve gone.’
‘Where are you going, Albert?’
Bob picked up a cloth and worked the Nose drips into the bar’s surface. ‘She’ll have it out of me, Albert. You know what she’s like.’
‘Tell her I’ve gone to Southend.’
‘Because it’s not here and it’s not Romford.’ Albert shot the stranger another look, as if wondering whether he could be trusted to remember the correct destination.
Bob gave the bar a final rub. ‘What about Twister, or Pearl? She’ll go to them first. Do they know you’ve gone to Southend?’
Albert looked uneasy. ‘I told them I was going to Romford.’
‘Not quite got the hang of this, Albert, have you?’ said Bob.
After Albert had departed, muttering, Bob placed the Goatherd’s Nose before the stranger. ‘Don’t mind Albert.’
‘I won’t,’ said the stranger. He raised the dimpled glass and gazed at the murky substance inside.
‘Our local brewery,’ said Bob. ‘That’s the Authentic Taste Of The Thames.’
‘Right,’ said the stranger. He sniffed at the glass. ‘Right,’ he said again.
‘I’d go to Australia if Christobel was after me,’ said Bob, chucking his beer-stained cloth on the shelf under the bar. ‘And it still wouldn’t be far enough.’
At quarter to twelve the door opened again, to a sultry breeze of face powder, cigarette smoke, stale lipstick and slightly ineffective deodorant. With it came a plump, dark haired, youngish woman in a shiny, impossibly tight red dress and shiny, impossibly high red stilettos.
Bob concentrated on buffing up one of the dimpled glasses. ‘Morning, Christobel.’
‘Morning,’ said Christobel, glaring at him.
She was outstandingly beautiful, a cross between Elizabeth Taylor and Sophia Loren in their prime. The stranger looked at the curved lips, ebony-lashed eyes and creamily contoured neck for some time longer than was strictly necessary.
She looked straight back at him. ‘And who might you be?’ Her voice was a purr that ended in a growl.
The stranger opened his mouth to answer.
‘Gentleman’s just a customer, Christobel,’ said Bob, buffing more vigorously. ‘Just having a quiet half.’
‘Huh,’ said Christobel, as if her suspicions had been entirely confirmed. She turned her eyes back to Bob, who looked like a man who has just sacrificed himself for a comrade.
‘Not seen you for a few days, Christobel. How you been? You been poorly? Pearl’s been poorly. And Twister. There’s a lot of it about.’ Bob buffed as if intent on obliterating the glass dimples.
‘Where is he?’
‘Who?’ asked Bob, looking around the still empty pub.
‘Albert. Where is he?’
‘Not seen him this morning.’
Christobel leaned across the bar. ‘Twister told me he saw him coming out of here not half an hour ago.’
Bob paused for a moment, as if digesting the fact that Twister had been in the vicinity of the pub and not come in. He looked sourly at Christobel. ‘I can’t keep track of everyone who comes in and out.’
Christobel straightened up and turned slowly on the spot, studying the lonely red flock wallpaper, stained tables, out of order gaming machine and stale floral carpet, all silently awaiting company. She raised her immaculately drawn eyebrows.
‘Oh yeah,’ said Bob. ‘He was in. A bit earlier. And then he left.’
‘Where did he go?’
Bob continued to buff. ‘I don’t know. Since when does Albert tell me his business?’
The eyebrows remained raised.
‘Southend. He’s gone to Southend.’
Christobel’s smile was broad and terrifying. ‘Why would he go to Southend, Bob?’
‘I don’t know.’ The buffing faltered.
‘Twister said he’d gone to Romford.’
‘Well,’ said Bob. ‘There you are. What are you asking me for?’
‘So he came in here to tell you he was going to Southend, and then he left again?’
‘Yes,’ said Bob. Hope trickled from his face.
Christobel turned her furnace eyes towards the stranger. ‘Were you here when he came in?’
The stranger concentrated, as if trying to recall a distant event. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, a gentleman did come in.’ He raised his eyes to the beautiful face. ‘But I don’t listen to other people’s conversations.’
Christobel looked at him shrewdly, as if sensing an adversary who might be worthy of the name. Then she turned back to the bar. Bob was attempting a retreat between the optics.
‘You tell him,’ she said. ‘You tell that rat-faced little shit I want my monkey. I’m giving him twenty-four hours, and then I’m coming to get it. Romford, Southend, Timbuktu, I’m coming to get my monkey.’ She flexed her beautifully carved shoulders. ‘Don’t let me down, Bob.’
‘But Christobel, he’s not here.’
The smile had gone. ‘Then you better find him.’
The stranger watched as the red dress, shiny shoes, dark hair and furnace eyes stalked out of the door.
Bob’s hands were still trembling as he asked, ‘Another half, sir?’
The stranger considered, looked at Bob with compassion, and nodded. He gazed around the silent pub. ‘Quiet day.’
‘Thursday,’ said Bob, as he pulled the Goatherd’s Nose.